Campaign of the Month: October 2017

Blood & Bourbon

======================================== NAVIGATION: CAMPAIGN SIDE ========================================
======================================== NAVIGATION: DASHBOARD SIDE ========================================
Emmett II, Chapter V
Redemption's Price

“You must confront the darkness within to confront the darkness without.”
Cécilia Devillers

Friday afternoon, 14 September 2007

Emmett: How do you make somebody fall in love with you?

That was the question he was asking at first. How do you make somebody love you? You can’t. Love, as far as El can tell, is one of those cosmic forces everybody lies about because the truth is, they don’t really know.

The truth is, Cécilia will never love him.

But Em knows better than to care about the truth.

So, how do you make somebody think they’re falling in love?

That’s an altogether different proposition.

Love is only awkward in the real world. In the real world, most of love is forced conversations, a lot of wincing, and the quiet strength that comes from realizing that people aren’t really perfect, but that they’re enough. In the real world, love is work.

But the movies don’t teach us that. And for all of Cécilia’s maturity, Em knows in the roots of his gut that she doesn’t know what real love is anymore than he does.

The trick of it is the pace. Too fast, too aggressive, she’ll get scared. He thinks about the time Dad tried to take him hunting. You only get to startle a doe once.

But too slow? Too slow and the illusion stalls, the penny drops and she’ll realize she’s not looking at a pipe; she’s looking at a picture of a pipe.

Time. He has to manage it perfectly. Better than he ever thought he would. He juggles school, the movie, the occasional family dinner to show he isn’t up to anything but being a moody teen. He becomes dimly aware that he hasn’t had a real conversation with either of his parents since before the dance. He keeps waiting for them to rear their concern at the most inconvenient moment, for Mom to say something when he comes back home from school, but she never does.

They are giving him space. Just like he’s always wanted. It’s about time.

Everybody thinks he’s doing something different than what he is. His school friends think that Em’s snared the lead role in a film some guy named Faustin is directing, and not only that but he’s got this hot actress girlfriend who he wants to impress. And because he tells good jokes and makes them feel like he knows everybody a bit better than they do, they cough up the pocket money and toys he needs to maintain the ruse. Borrowed watches, wheels, and wear means he seems rich but unfussed by it, grounded apart from his privilege. Mature beyond his years, even as he radiates a childlike glee when he laughs.

But he can’t pretend to be rich forever, so he gets creative. Their dates aren’t expensive—they’ve been doing expensive things their whole lives, he’ll tell her at one point. The best things aren’t free, but you can’t buy them either.

Walks around the Garden District at night, with slow, winding conversations and stories that sound too ridiculous to have happened to one person but surely too absurd and detailed to be false; and Em knows how to tell a story. Some nights they return to that spot, but others they lie in warm grass and do nothing but talk.

It’s always about her. That’s the key. She’s naturally intrigued by him, but all his stories come back to her, to how she feels, to what she thinks about this or that, what she would have done if she were him. He trades her, story for story, and laughs as he teaches her to tell it proper: Cajun-fried.

He walks her through the bayou one weekend, pointing out the plants he’s surprised he remembers and how he’s happy that there’s only ever one season here, how he feels more at home here than in the city even though he’s never actually lived here.

“Ancestral roots, I guess. Or maybe vines, more appropriately.”

So he talks to her and weaves his lies tight and stitches them to her truth. He wants his voice to be the one she hears when she questions herself, his voice to be the only sound she trusts like she trusts her own.

He brings her pains to soothe, too. She likes to feel needed, to feel helpful. And he sets her up with straight line after straight line, about how his mom and him have never been close but were always alike, and how he worries that maybe that means he’s ‘supposed’ to be alone. How he sometimes thinks that his dad is only happy when he’s away from them, from him. How sometimes there just seems like a distance he doesn’t know how to broach. He keeps things dynamic, too, want to keep up the details; he reads a touching email from his father (all the way from Switzerland!). He adds moments of happiness, too, Christmas dinners gone hilariously wrong, birthdays where his brother tried to make a cake but ended up making a kind of chunky pudding instead (and he hasn’t eaten cake on a birthday since).

And it’s only natural that he wants to hear about her family, too. The imperfect moments and the perfect ones. The times she felt happiest, most complete. He never pushes, instead letting the “natural” direction of their conversations continually flow towards those ever-deep waters.

GM: The headwaters of those currents are unsurprising ones.

The first, last, and most important things in Cécilia’s world are her mother and sisters. As she quotes several times, “Other things may change us, but we start and end as family.”

She’d want to introduce Em to them all, if she hadn’t already. He met Adeline when he first met her, of course. Adeline is still so grateful over how he saved her from Lee. He’s acquainted with Yvette and Yvonne, who don’t seem to quite understand the specifics of what happened, but who seem grateful to him all he same. He met Simmone, of course, when she played that prank on him (“I’m sorry about that, but Maman is right—we Devillers do have a bit of the devil…” Cécilia jokes).

Noëlle is the only one of Cécilia’s sisters who’s a new face to Em—comparatively, at least. The four-year-old child shares nigh-identical features to her five siblings, down to the same build, voice, and eye, hair, and skin color. It’s really only the age difference that distinguishes them. Cécilia comments on the familial resemblance with a knowing, “Men don’t run in our genes.” Noëlle is still in preschool and doesn’t have much to say in conversations, but she seems to think Em is nice.

And, of course, he’s already met Maman.

“She thinks you’re wonderful,” Cécilia smiles. “I’m sorry she’s not around more often, but she’s very busy. She did have something she wanted me to pass on to you, though, after she read your latest version of the script—the one with the unambiguously tragic ending.”

“Oh, you know,” Cécilia laughs, “I’ve forgotten what it was. It was something sweet and reassuring. She’ll tell you herself at the screening, I’m sure. She loves the latest script. She’s looking forward to seeing the finished movie so much.”

Emmett: The hairs on the back of his neck stand. “Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve seen her. What does she do with most of her time, when she’s not with you and the rugrats?”

GM: “Oh, a lot of things. She’s on the boards of directors for a lot of civic, cultural, and philanthropic organizations, like the Ogden Museum and McGehee’s executive committee. She spends a lot of her time going to meetings and social events—always outside our house, though. Back home, people don’t really believe in mixing their personal and professional lives. Once someone’s left the office, forget about them answering any calls or emails until the next work day.” She pauses thoughtfully. “I think Americans would be a lot happier if they adopted that lifestyle. So many people here feel so stressed about their jobs.”

Cécilia also agrees with Emmett that the best things in life are free. Her tastes don’t run towards the expensive, at least past a certain point. She seems to take wealth and privilege enough for granted that she doesn’t need to see it flashed at every opportunity. It’s more the conspicuous absence of its trappings, as Em observed with Yvette, that stand out like loose threads in the costume of lies he’s wearing.

That’s the difference between new money and old money, Uncle Ron sagely pontificates. Old money thinks it’s crass to wave their money in someone’s face. But they have more unspoken codes about how things are done, too. Sometimes new money is actually easier to fit in with.

Maybe it’s that, how they’re from such different worlds. Maybe there’s some unspoken bit of etiquette Em is missing, the sort of thing you pick up in cotillion lessons and country clubs he’s never been to. Maybe it’s how they come from such different families, or maybe it’s how this relationship is wrapped up in an elaborate lie to one of them.

Cécilia just feels like she’s from another planet, sometimes.

She has worries, concerns, and fears, like anyone. She misses her home country, sometimes, and all the friends she had there. But Maman has made their family a new home here, and she’s made so many new friends she wouldn’t trade for anything.

She’s had boyfriends before Em, but those relationships ended amicably. They’re still friends. She even offers to introduce Em to some of her male friends, and just gives a tinkling laugh at the suggestion anyone should feel jealous.

She sometimes feels like a lot is expected of her, between her scholastic, extracurricular, and familial commitments, and that she’s short on time for herself. But it’s worth it, to her, and she wouldn’t change that part of her life if she could.

She’s moving to Massachusetts next year to attend Wellesley College, and admits she’ll miss her mother and sisters. And her cat Frollo, who’s going to stay behind with his five siblings because she doesn’t want to separate them. But she’ll fly home regularly, and she’ll move back to New Orleans after grad school. She thinks it’s important that she experience new places and meet new people in pursuit of her educational and professional goals.

She feels sad about all the misery, want, and hate in the world, sometimes. She feels bad for the “less fortunate” in New Orleans, for she realizes she is very fortunate in very many ways. Sometimes she’s concerned for humanity’s future. But she accepts that she and her family are doing what they can to extend their good fortune to others. They’re doing their own small part to make the world a better place; the rest is up to everyone.

That’s the thing about all the things that might infringe upon Cécilia’s happiness. There’s always a “but” after them. But they’re not so bad. But there’s a way around them. But they’re worth it. But, but, but.

Cécilia is happy. Her family makes her happy. She fondly remembers the past, enjoys the fullness of the present, and looks forward to the future, but isn’t in any hurry to get there. She doesn’t seem to be that angry, jealous, scared, insecure, resentful, or otherwise discontent over anything, at least not beyond immediate moments like Lee harassing her sister.

Cécilia is content. She is happy. There’s nothing she’d change about her life.

Em has never seen anything like it.

Emmett: At first, he thought she was broken, somehow, cosmically unbalanced with her lack of suffering.

Now he knows better.

She was just waiting to meet him.

GM: Growing up in France was very different from life in the United States, Cécilia agrees when Em raises the subject. People are friendlier here, and a lot more chatty and extroverted. Acquaintances share what she calls “really personal things” with people they’ve only just met. People back home are more reserved. But the friendships can be deeper. In America it can be hard to get past the superficial. They’re more sensitive, too. People debate and criticize each other freely in France, but in America everyone wants to avoid offending each other. It’s considered impolite to argue with people about their political and religious views.

“I used to be a lot more argumentative, actually,” Cécilia mentions with some amusement. “But I learned to tone that down. It’s not how things are done here.”

One of the biggest changes to get used to was eating. People appreciate food more back home. Lunch breaks at her old school were two hours long, with multi-course meals. Breakfast and dinner are fairly light meals next to lunch, which is massive. Cécilia’s family had to change their whole eating patterns to fit in with their new community.

“And of course food is very, very important back in France. No one brings their own lunch, because the food at schools isn’t just good, it’s wonderful—it’s all freshly made with local ingredients, and everyone sits at intimate little tables with cloth napkins and water pitchers, like in restaurants, and you’re not rushed at all. My family’s lucky the lunches at McGehee are pretty good, but it’s downright sad what the ones in public schools are like.” Cécilia shakes her head. “I wouldn’t feed those lunches to animals. It’s no wonder children here have so many health problems.”

Emmett: “What kinds of personal things?”

El gets wanting more out of relationships. He had friends when he was younger who he told everything to, whom he lost touch with after going to St. Martin’s. He’s always missed having somebody who you could tell anything to.

He also laughs at the description of a more argumentative Cécilia. “I wouldn’t say this isn’t a country for argumentative people. You make your way here by saying what you think.”

He wonders whether schools in France also give out complementary blowjobs and cigars in detention.

GM: “Past relationships is the first one that springs to mind. You can hit off with someone you’ve met just that afternoon and have them telling you stories about their messy breakup with their ex. People are more reserved in France—you only share those sorts of things with close friends, who can take a while to make.”

“And I’d say you’re right, people are more outspoken here in some ways. But there are unspoken conventions too. If you go out to lunch with some people you’ve just met, for instance, it’s in bad taste to bring up politics or religion, and especially to get into an argument. But in France, it’s the opposite. People get into political debates with strangers and new acquaintances all the time.”

As far as the Devillers themselves, Em eventually picks up the family comes from Avignon, a city in southern France. “There’s more to the country than just Paris,” Cécilia states, half-jokingly but also half-seriously.

“I’ve not even been to Paris that many times—there’s people here who’ve probably explored the city more than I have.”

Emmett: “You don’t say?” he replies in the same tone. “Educate me, all I know is what you’ve told me and the tune to Champs-Elysees.”

GM: “Well, Avignon has its own music too…”

GM: She shows the music to Em on a Sunpod.

Emmett: “I like that second one,” he laughs. “Music needs a little swing to it.”

So do relationships.

“Your mom, though—did she grow up in Avignon? Or just raise you and Adeline there?”

GM: “She raised all my sisters there,” Cécilia corrects. “Even Simmone was born in Avignon, though she was just a baby when we came over. We still have a house where we spend summers. We don’t want her to grow up too American.” Cécilia smiles in seeming jest. “Maman came to Avignon when she was very little, but she was actually born in Spain.”

Emmett: “Really? Were her parents French? I don’t actually know much about your family, or your history.”

He doesn’t say or your dad, but he doesn’t need to.

GM: Cécilia laughs. “You’ve met Maman and all five of my sisters, El. That’s more than I can say for your family. I know your dad isn’t around much, but when am I going to meet Devin and your mom, or come over to your house?”

Emmett: “My mom…” he pauses, there. “You can meet her. If you want to. She can be a lot, though. And my house is boring, but if you want to come, you can.”

Tricky, but doable. He’s talked to Ron about this eventuality. He’s quiet for a moment.

“You know it’s nothing about you that makes me nervous about introducing you to them, right?” He goes on, “It’s just… not every family is perfect. And I’m not sure how often you’ve had to see that. Because, well, it sounds like yours is.”

GM: Cécilia smiles wanly. “Perfect is relative, El. My family is very lucky, but I wouldn’t say we’re perfect. We have fights and bad days and times things don’t go our way, like with Lee at that dance. I actually read a scientific study somewhere once that having four or more girls and no boys is the most unhappy combination of children a family can have.”

Emmett: Really? What about two boys, one girl, all dead?

“It’s hard to imagine you fighting with any of them. You’re the most patient person I’ve ever met.”

GM: The wan smile doesn’t go away. “Then you should get to know Maman better, because she’s the most patient person I’ve ever met. But everyone fights at some point. My sisters are mainly good at making up. And not everyone in our family is happy, either. My aunt might be one of the most unhappy women I know.”

Emmett: “I didn’t know you had an aunt. Is she back in Avignon?”

GM: Cécilia nods. “My family goes back every summer, like I said, but she doesn’t always want to see us. She’s very sad. Very tired. Young children with lots of energy just don’t agree with her.”

Emmett: “I have an uncle like that.” He actually does. “Undiagnosed depression, or something. He just has these moods where he won’t tell anybody anything. Uncle Roy. Is she close to your mom, your aunt?”

GM: “Very close,” Cécilia nods. “She usually doesn’t want my sisters around, but she and Maman can talk for hours.”

“I’m sorry about your Uncle Roy. Maybe you could introduce me to him, too. Routines, or ruts, can exacerbate depression. It can be helpful for them to meet new people and see or do new things.”

Emmett: “If I can catch him in a good mood, I’ll trade you for meeting your aunt—what’d you say her name was?— if she ever comes to town.”

He mentally adds another name of people she might have to meet to the list.

He finds himself studying the lines of her face, trying to make out features that are her own, that he cannot recall seeing on Abèlia’s. “What about the other side of your family? Any connection there”

It’s asked tactfully enough, but he can feel her dancing around the subject and he needs to pin it down.

GM: Em may not have met Abèlia for very long, but hers is not a face he will soon forget. It’s the spitting image of her daughter’s, down to the same pale skin, high cheekbones, milk-smooth complexion, and swan-like neck. Their lips, eyes, mouth, chin… all close to the same, if one were to shave away the passage of twenty to thirty years. The only immediate, all-too striking difference between them is their hair and eyes: pale blonde against midnight black, and deep against pale blue. Em has the odd thought that they’re blue like an ocean… the same ocean. Only one is close to the surface where the sun still shines, and the other is so deep as to be almost out of sight, just on the border region where nameless things great and terrible and alien swim.

“Depressed people often don’t let you catch them in a good mood, El. You have to take the initiative and surprise them,” Cécilia smiles. “As for my aunt, that’s because I didn’t say.” Her smile doesn’t dim.

“That’s very deft how you asked that second question. But a lady must have her secrets…”

Emmett: “What’s a secret you never tell?” he idly asks. “Like a joke without a punchline or a story without an ending. But you don’t need to tell me anything you don’t think I can’t hear. And I wouldn’t want you to. I hope you know I’m asking because I’m curious about…well, everything about you. Everything.”

He’s quiet for another moment. “But when you’re ready to, I have a secret for you, too. Maybe even one almost as good.”

GM: “Oh, really?” Cécilia raises an eyebrow. “You’ll have to give me some kind of clue, to be fair. All mysteries start with some set of knowns.”

Emmett: “It’s something your maman doesn’t want you to know.”

The delivery was good, if he could grade himself. Professional, even. If there was music playing, it would bow be skipping and clattering into silence.

But instead, there is only the silence that breaks when Cécilia inevitably answers him.

GM: “I’d say that’s a little broad, still, next to your question about me,” Cécilia says thoughtfully. “We could stay it’s ‘something to do with my family’, but that’s not the same, is it?”

Emmett: “Sure. It’s something that she’s choosing to hide from you about me. How’s that?”

GM: “Oh, that’s better. Very intriguing, too.” Cécilia smiles contently. “But I wouldn’t want to disappoint you by giving everything away. I suppose I’ll just have to guess what your and Maman’s secret is…”

Emmett: “Guess, then. What kinds of secrets would she keep from you?” He leans forward on his elbows, closer to her now. “You can tell a lot about somebody by what they hide. What’s the secret you can imagine she’d keep?”

GM: “Hmm,” Cécilia says thoughtfully. “The first thing that comes to mind is something for my or my sisters’ well-being. Something to keep us safe. And you say your father’s an ambassador you don’t see very often. Maybe you were involved in a sensitive diplomatic matter—ambassadors’ children aren’t supposed to get involved in those, which makes it even more sensitive.”

Emmett: “That’s a clever secret,” he agrees. “How would an idiot like me go and get himself involved in something sensitive?”

GM: “Perhaps by always underestimating himself,” Cécilia counters.

Emmett: “That’s me, too humble… but still, what kind of thing would I do to involve myself where I shouldn’t be? Did I fall in love with a Saudi princess, or just make best friends with Kim-Jong Un’s illegitimate son?”

GM: “Your father’s stationed in Switzerland, so I’d say something more mundane. The first thing that comes to mind is something to do with finances.”

Emmett: “That’s a good guess. It’s only fair I get one too, right?”

GM: “Of course. Though I’ll say as much to confirm as you have,” she smiles.

Emmett: “Right… so obviously you don’t talk about your father, but if he’s a secret, the question becomes why. Because a secret means somebody loses something when it’s told.”

He looks into those pale blue eyes. “Okay. So let’s assume him and your maman are on good terms, because obviously she’s never cut him out of her life completely, and just as obviously he’s fathered all your siblings. Which means one of two things: that she loves him, but can’t have or doesn’t want him in her life regularly, or… you don’t have a father.”

And as he says it, he is almost certain he has accidentally said something completely true.

GM: “Do you mean ’don’t’ in the sense that he’s dead?” Cécilia asks.

Emmett: “No. I think you never had one.”

“It’s like you said. Men don’t run in your genes.”

GM: Cécilia raises her eyebrows. “You mean in the biological sense?”

Emmett: “I mean that whatever Abèlia did to start your family, she did it on her terms. Her daughters, her choice, her initiative. Maybe that means a donor who signed a lot of contracts or something, or maybe there’s some other more complicated process at work, but I bet that whatever the answer is, when I say ‘papa,’ you don’t see a face.”

GM: “That’s certainly a more biologically plausible scenario,” Cécilia states coyly.

Emmett: Late afternoon becomes evening, and the bottle of wine they bought with them become empty.

They talk more, and more pleasantly, make out a bit, eat some of the food she bought, and drink slowly but fairly throughout. There’s no reason not to; they know each other, they’ve drunk before, and the conversation stays light but breathlessly, restlessly close.

GM: Cécilia has as casual an attitude towards wine as Em has seen from any of the Devillers. They’re fine drinking most anywhere. They’re even fine with the children drinking. Drinking towards excess seems to be another matter—Em’s never seen Cécilia get really wasted, and she doesn’t seem to find much appeal in doing so. There’s no element of risk or transgression in alcohol for her, and after enough glasses it’s all cons without pros.

She eventually starts saying they need to gather up their things and leave—she’s taken time out of her pretty busy schedule for this.

Em recalls back to the down-to-earth talk she gave him after a few dates about how she intends on saving herself until marriage, citing her Catholic faith, studies that say couples with fewer premarital partners are happier together, and perhaps not least of all, Maman’s relationship advice. (“Always keeping a few things mysterious about yourself” was another piece of that.)

It came out too, with Ron. The dirty stories lasted a while, but eventually his uncle called him out. “Sheeeeit, son, you know what they say. Don’t bullshit a bullshitter. Not an old one like me.”

“Now I bet you’re embarrassed because you can’t get this girl to put out, so you’re feedin’ me bullshit, because you’re scared you’re losing your touch. But it ain’t like that. Some girls, the ones who are doe-eyed for Jesus especially… look, kid, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. So what do you do then?”

“Well, that’s easy. You wait. You don’t lead it anywhere. Eventually, if the day gets hot enough, it’s gonna get thirsty on its own. What that means is, you can’t just show these girls a wild evening, turn on the charm full blast, and hope the hookup’s gonna happen. You gotta become part of their lives. And I don’t just mean meet their families and shit… you’ve got to get them invested in you. Emotionally, not just horny.”

“So, this Cécilia girl. She cares for other people, right? Not ‘cares about,’ ‘cares for.’ Looks after her little sisters all her life and shit? Now, gee, isn’t it funny how much she wheedled you about film school? And getting this movie off the ground, how it was all her idea, even if she’d tell you it’s yours? That’s what she does, sounds to me.”

“I’d say your way in is this movie. Time I’d make my moves is after the premier. After the whole room’s all clapping, you’ve made the pretty speech, shaken hands, and everyone’s all sucked your dick. Then, drag out the afterparty—just you and the people whose names you actually fuckin’ know. Get a little more to drink in her. Little more compliments, little more food, little more everything. Let it get really late. Then, let it get really, really late. Let it hit that magic hour a good girl like her’s never s’posed to be up, where she’s real tired and things start getting a little blurry, a little unreal. Your tie’s loose, jacket’s off, her hair and makeup’s all mussed and she’s takin’ off her heels, but she’s not gonna konk out, not on a magic night like this.”

“Then, you take her out alone. Maybe someplace special, really special, or maybe you just take her straight home, whatever feels right, but you take her home. Your home. Or someplace you can say is your fuckin’ home, ‘cause it’s gotta be just you two, alone, and she’s gotta know you’re alone. Celebrate with some more champagne, someplace cozy. Don’t fill up her glass all that much, just little baby splashes, but keep the refills comin’. Feed her a line about getting accepted into film school. Yeah, it takes longer than that, but what the fuck does she know. Or, hell, show her an actual fuckin’ letter. Say how proud your mom was, too. Your brother. How happy they were. Even better if she ‘meets’ them. Say your ‘ambassaor’ dad called. Hell, pretend to take a call! Guy’s in Switzerland, right, so fuckin’ time zones? Get all choked and weepy. About how you didn’t think this could happen. About how your life’s all changed, how bright the future looks. You tell her this is all her, all ‘cause of her, and you’ve never met anyone like her, and you’re on a new course now, a new life, all ‘cause of her. And when she’s lookin’ at you all doe-eyed, and sees what a bang-up job she’s done takin’ care of you, because taking care of people is what she fuckin’ does… then, kid. Then’s when I’d make my move.”

“Well, actually,” Ron had then smirked, breaking the spell of his words, “that ain’t when I would.”

“You’re still young, but truth is, women are like… buses. There’s always another one pullin’ in. I’m not gonna put on a tux and wine and dine every piece of tail that struts her ass.”

Then he’d leered. “Though just wining ’em…”

Ron had gotten up from the couch, rummaged through a kitchen cabinet, then tossed Em a plastic baggy with several plain-looking pills.

“You don’t wanna wait through all that shit, just plop onea those babies in her drink. And she’ll be all yours.”

Emmett: He had said little then. He hadn’t known what to say, except nod.

He’s not an idiot. He knows what this kind of thing is called, even if people don’t like to talk about it. The r-word. The thing that so many people do but never, ever call by its name.

Murderers will call themselves murderers to brag, thieves will shrug when they’re outed as thieves.

But only the truly sick are proud of rape. Only the furthest departed from others can stare into that sin and its sweeping, cruel abyss, and say: “I feel no shame. I know what I have done, and I am whole.”

He left with the pills. They’re not heavy. They’re no more a burden than sugar pills.

It’s not like the situation is a normal one. Cécilia might not even be human, to say nothing of her mother. Besides, didn’t she say herself he is beyond redemption, beyond the point of no return?

There’s a moment. The last cup of the night, and she’s distracted and his hands are quick. He can do it.

He thinks about walking a plank. There’s a sword poking him to walk back, back, to plunge into the icy depths he’s straddled all this time.

But the thing about walking a plank that most people don’t understand is that you don’t have to step off it.

The moment is here.

“Yeah,” he says. “Let’s get out of here.” He makes sure to help her pack up.

When she isn’t looking, he slips the pills. The bayou waters gurgle them up like pigshit.

As he drives her back, he can’t help but think that just because you can’t turn around, doesn’t mean there’s one place to go.

And then he thinks that he’ll miss this place, as his latest borrowed car’s headlights tear open a hole in the night and show him into New Orleans.

Sunday afternoon, 16 September 2007

GM: “Well, Em, there’s five stages to making any movie,” Ron explains. “Some people say seven, but fuck that noise. There’s only five that really matter.”

“Stage one’s development. You write the script, pitch it to people who can bankroll it, and pray to whatever god you believe in they don’t shit all over it. Because they can, so long as you’re taking their money. They can use the pages for toilet paper, hand them back, and tell you not to mind the smell.”

Em writes and pitches his script. Ron says it’s “bold” and grabs his interest. It’s got a novel and intriguing story that isn’t a cliché at all. It’s also too intelligent for mass audiences.

“Shit, that ending? You need to hold their hands more. I’da told you to dumb this down if you’d signed the rights to Zodiac. It’s too good. People don’t want good. The aunt needs to be a vampire or something, and she needs to die at the end.”

“But that’s the fun of being a young director like you. You still get to write good movies.”

He laughs bitterly.

“Don’t get used to it.”

Monday afternoon, 17 September 2007

GM: “Stage two is pre-production. Creating a budget and schedule, picking film locations, and hiring actors. Getting the money is what it is, but casting auditions are always fun.”

He winks at Em.

“Usually when actresses start sleeping with the director.”

Saturday morning, 22 September 2007

GM: Em could say he paid much attention to the legal aspects of the movie, and spent much time on funding and other pre-production tasks before getting to the auditions, but he’d be lying. Besides, Ron points out, it’s not as if his actors are working for money, so he can “hire” them on sooner.

Em gets his friends to tell their friends, and puts up flyers around local colleges and high schools. No one’s getting paid for their roles, beyond free food at the film shoots, but there’ll be a fancy meal at the Commander’s Palace screening. And it’ll be something to put on college applications or under “volunteer experience.”

Sitting in for the auditions is fun the first few times, and even the next few times after that. It gets repetitive, though, and some of the unpaid youth actors are simply trash. It’s on a Saturday morning when the scheduled lunch break feels too far away that the next of his prospectives steps in.

Support: The man is dressed in the traditional attire of exhausted college students: a sweater branded with the name of a university he doesn’t attend and a pair of jeans that are a little to baggy to be flattering. He wears a skullcap on the top of his head. “All right, all right, I’m coming!” he laughs after the young brunette who’s pulling him along, almost tripping over the floor.

Emmett: Em stares.

Is that a Jew hat?

GM: Cécilia, sitting in one of the empty classroom’s adjacent fold-out chairs, smiles and gives them the standard “thanks so much for coming” hello that Em’s heard all morning. She also asks them to “slate,” which as she helpfully explains, “is a movie term for giving your name and talent agency to the auditioners… though somehow I think we can skip the second of those.”

Em’s heard that line more than once too.

Emmett: Cécilia’s an angel. He’d say something about how he didn’t deserve her if it wasn’t a tad too close for comfort.

He glances over the two and when their turns come gives each a prompt.

The brunette gets a usual prompt—“tell me a secret”—but when he’s screening the man, he finds himself oddly focused, his curiosity evoked through the haze of mouth-breathing amateurism.

“Tell me about yourself in the most interesting way you can.”

Support: “Uh well, if you want to know about me I could tell you I’m a Jewish Comp Sci major… class of…”

He breathes and continues, “I know how to find out secrets. Given an hour or two, a phone book, and an Internet connection, I could find out the context of anybody’s lives. Who they are. How they present themselves. And if I had some time to chat with my rabbi, I could figure out anybody’s fundamental purpose.”

He stares Em right in the eyes. “I could find out who you are, but more importantly, why you are.”

His lifts his arms up, showing his palms to the director. “Not that I would ever do that. That would be a couple hairs shy of a stalking charge. Not to mention the ethical issues.”

“Oh!” he seemingly remembers, turning to belatedly answer Cécilia’s question. “You can call me Em.”

GM: The brunette, who simply gave her name as Hillary, looks amused.

“Oh, that’ll be easy to remember,” the younger blonde woman smiles. “It’s so close to his name—Em and El.”

“What’s the most interesting thing you’ve found out about someone through your rabbi, phone book, and internet connection?”

Emmett: Em chokes a little on his water but otherwise retains his composure. “Yeah, real easy,” he agrees.

The fuck is this guy?

“I’m interested, gotta admit,” he says in the meantime. “What are you looking for at an audition?”

Support: “Oh, like I said I don’t think it would be very good to go snooping for info like that most of the time. But to give you an example of the stuff my rabbi can tell you… there’s always something pertinent in the meanings behind names,” ‘Em’ answers El with a shrug.

“To he honest, Hil sorta just dragged me along over here. But, you know I’ve always liked the movies and I like the idea of helping out a community project. Its been a while since I’ve had the chance. So I’d like to play a part if you have one in mind.”

“You have a real interesting name, El, know what it means?”

GM: “It’s another name for God, I think?” Cécilia supplies.

Emmett: “Yeah, I think my mother liked the sound of it more than the meaning. But I’ll bite, what’s it mean originally?”

He keeps his tone friendly, but this guy is clearly a kook. Still, no harm no foul.

Support: “Your friend is right, it is, in its shortened form, a name of God. But back in the day, before the God of Abraham was widely known, your full first name, which I suspect is some translation of Elijahu, was of much more significance. Elijahu means my God is Yah. It was a defiant declaration of faith, of knowledge of who truly controls you despite being surrounded by other insects who claim divinity and through that seek control. You aren’t a servant of Dagon or Baal, and you can’t change this fact. Your subservience to your God is a part of you. And you even have the pleasure of knowing your master’s name.” Em expresses this with a great levity, like he’s retelling a childhood story.

“You know, Elijah was also a prophet. Every prophet gets to tell a story, sorta like what you’re doing with this movie. But the special part about Elijah is that instead of perishing before His word came to pass, his master took him from the world alive, by fire, to stay next to Him in His house. Forever.” Em is beaming, a little too excited for his own sake.

GM: “Oh wow, that’s a lot to have in a name,” Cécilia says. “But I guess it’s true that names have power. You obviously know a lot about religious studies, Em.”

Support: “Oh, that’s nothing. My teacher says we’ve barely scratched the surface of knowledge to learn. Do you have much interest in religion yourself?”

Emmett: “Some,” El lies immediately. “But I wasn’t raised in a churchgoing home. I know Cécilia was, though.” He beams at her. People feel grateful when you make them the center of your universe. Even if they already live there.

“You seem to care a lot about meaning,” El says to the Jew. “What’s your own name mean, Em?”

Support: Em smiles at El’s apparent interest, but then scrunches his brow a bit before answering, “Well, in the original language, ‘Em’ is an adjective, meaning pertaining, or perhaps, belonging to mother.”

Emil thinks for a moment before breaking into laughter.

“I guess that means I’m somewhat of a mama’s boy. I can’t disagree with that!” Em finishes as he calms down. “So what’s your movie gonna be about?”

GM: “It’s a love story, remember?” says Hillary, having watched her boyfriend’s lengthy exposition with some amusement.

“That’s right,” Cécilia nods, still smiling slightly over El’s churchgoing remark. “It’s a rags to riches story about a poor conwoman who falls in love with a handsome young heir, but his aunt is a horrible monster who gets in the way.”

“That’s an interesting subversion. Refreshing, actually. Usually it’s the guy trying to get the girl who’s better than him,” Hillary remarks.

“Yes, we wanted to do something refreshing. It’s 2007, after all. The girl can fight to get the boy too.”

“Yes, that sounds great,” Hillary nods. “But it does sound a little black and white to me too, no offense. Two people in love, a bad person gets in the way, and true love overcomes?”

“Oh, we’ve made sure to give it more depth than that,” Cécilia smiles. “The nuance isn’t in the aunt, but the heroine’s choices. When I say the aunt is a horrible monster, that might be the literal truth. Or it might not. The aunt isn’t ever mean to the heroine’s face, but there are disturbing hints about what she’s up to behind closed doors—things so disturbing she might not even be human. The heroine isn’t sure what to believe and wonders if she’s insane, because at the same time, the aunt makes her nephew very happy and actually encourages them to pursue a relationship together. But the more the heroine sees, the more she’s convinced their happiness may be built on an unspeakably awful lie. But she can’t simply expose the aunt without consequence, or even expose her at all—the aunt is powerful, connected, and she’s no one. So the heroine has to face some very hard questions about what she’s willing to do for love, what she can live with, and how much of this may just be in her head. There can’t be a happily ever after in this story: just an option that’s less distasteful.”

“Oh wow, that’s really dark-sounding,” Hillary comments, eyebrows raised. “Would you say that it’s a horror movie?”

Cécilia seems to think on that. “You know, we actually hadn’t really considered its genre. But now that you mention it, I’d say it definitely is. It’s only ambiguous whether it’s supernatural horror or psychological horror. Some or all of what’s happening could just be in the heroine’s head.”

She smiles at the two auditioners. “Hopefully that gives you both a better sense of what the movie’s about, anyway.”

Support: Emil nods. “Thank you for explaining, but now I’m curious. Does the conwoman ever admit to her deceit? You know, out of love or something like that?”

GM: “You mean about who she is?” Cécilia shakes her head. “No. Though now that you mention it, that detail gets largely sidelined in favor of the plot with the aunt. I wonder if that’s a mistake.”

Support: “Well I guess I assumed, since she’s a liar, she might make herself seem better than she is. Maybe you could include a redemption arc?”

GM: “Maybe you shouldn’t,” Hillary says thoughtfully. “Does the aunt get to redeem herself?”

Cécilia starts to answer, but Hillary preempts her with, “Rhetorical question. You want this to be a horror movie, and that’d be a really happy ending. But how much worse is the aunt than the conwoman, really? How many people has the conwoman hurt? Why should she get to redeem herself just because she’s the protagonist?”

“There’s a quote my mom likes, ‘Every person is the protagonist in their own story.’ Even the ones who are bad guys. It feels almost… excusing the conwoman, saying that because she’s the heroine, the protagonist, the center of her world, that she gets to be special. Am I making sense there?”

Support: “You know, I think you bring up something really important there, Hil. Maybe, and I’m no storyteller so take this with a grain of salt, if you want to do something fresh, let the aunt alone redeem herself?”

GM: “Oh, just the aunt? Why her and not the conwoman?” Cécilia asks curiously.

Support: “Because she’s the only one who is really suffering in the movie. She’s the one the audience will come to see as a monster. The other characters get off comparatively easy. Let the aunt fight for her image and you’ll have a nice twist,” Emil responds after some thought.

GM: “I don’t know… actually, no, I do,” Hillary frowns. “The aunt’s supposed to be a horrible monster who’s hurt people, isn’t she? So why should we feel bad for her just because the audience finds out? So she loses her reputation—that’s called getting caught. That isn’t suffering, that’s justice.”

Support: “Because, Hil, I’m not sure the aunt is actually that bad. They said that we never see the aunt actually hurt anyone. If it’s told from the perspective of the conwoman, she could be twisting the narrative to justify her actions. What if we get to see the aunt’s side of the story in the end of the film?”

GM: “That’s true,” Hillary thinks. “So the conwoman was actually just mistaken about the whole thing. The aunt being a monster was actually a con she was pulling on herself. The real monster all along was her.”

“I wonder though, if we can already switch roles like that and have the conwoman turn out to be the real monster, could she redeem herself too? And how do you have her redeem herself and still face justice?”

“I’d first say the aunt being a monster is a matter of perception, but the conwoman being one is an objective fact,” Cécilia raises. “Crimes are crimes, and the conwoman can’t simply spin her way out of those. Twisting other peoples’ perspectives is what she’s always done. She has to admit to that, to her crimes, and other people’s perspectives—society’s—mattering more than hers.”

“That makes sense, then,” Hillary says. “The conwoman simply has to admit what she did was wrong. She has to be honest for once, and willing to face the consequences.”

Cécilia nods. “If the conwoman is caught and tells us she’s sorry, it’s hard to believe she really is—or at least sorry for anything besides getting caught.”

“Crocodile tears,” Hillary remarks.

“Yes,” Cécilia says. “For those tears to be human, she has to confess what she’s done when she thinks she can get away with it. She must be willing to face justice. But just as important as justice is mercy. The people she’s hurt can choose to forgive her, and absolve her of any consequences besides a humbled pride. Redemption is a two-way process. The criminal tries to prove they’re worthy of it, and the victim recognizes when they are.”

“So the conwoman could redeem herself, just like the aunt might not actually be a monster,” Hillary says. “That’d be a really happy ending. But is it the best story?”

Support: “Horror is nothing without contrast. I don’t think redemption in itself has to lead to a happy ending. You know the story of Samson and Delilah? Samson broke his oath with God for the love of Delilah and he suffered immensely, getting humbled from a man who could kill a thousand men with an animal’s jawbone to a cripple with his eyes gouged out. His story was horrific, but he did redeem himself in the end, by sacrificing his life to tear down the temple of Israel’s enemies.”

GM: “That’s true,” Hillary remarks. “The conwoman could redeem herself. But the nephew or the people she’s hurt could always refuse to forgive her. Just because she does the right thing doesn’t mean that other people have to.” She frowns. “I don’t think I like that ending, though. It’s unfair. Samson gets recognized as a hero in the end, it just costs him.”

“I think I like that kind of ending more than one where the aunt turns out not to be a monster and the conwoman redeems herself, too. You shouldn’t be able to essentially just handwave what you’ve done away—redeeming yourself should cost something.”

Emmett: The young director is an unusually well-groomed young man for his age, and Em gets the distinct impression he’s a little at a loss, a situation perhaps unfamiliar to him. He’s been listening to their discussion first with the kind of polite silence of somebody who knows the work obsessively well but is waiting to hear what others have to say, then with what looks like a kind of touched surprise as the girl—maybe some kind of romantic partner, from the body language, but it’s hard to parse the boy’s exact relation towards her—- starts to talk about his project’s insides and outs, as attentively and thoughtfully as if it were her own.

Then that expression grows thoughtful and steadily still (morose?) as the group discusses the ending.

“I guess I’m wondering what redemption looks like when truth becomes dangerous. The obvious answer is she comes clean, shares everything—but that also seems too clean. What redeems a liar when the most dangerous thing they can do is tell the truth?”

The question seems directed at all of them, but he’s watching Cécilia’s face.

GM: “I’d say that’s the whole point of redemption,” Cécilia considers. “It has to cost the wrongdoer something. They have to give of themselves for others, not just to make right the wrongs they’ve done, but to show us they’ve had a change of heart. So Samson in the story gives his life to defeat Israel’s enemies.”

“Now the wrongdoer might also think, why should they ever do that. Who wants to die or pay some other price when they could get to live instead, and not? How does redemption pay?”

“You could say, again, the whole point of redemption is supposed to be thinking about others. But the wrongdoer is actually saving themselves too.”

Cécilia seems to think. “In fact… let’s assume for a moment the aunt really is a monster, and of course the conwoman already is. Now let’s say she doesn’t redeem herself to the nephew, and doesn’t come clean.”

A dawning look comes over Cécilia’s face. “Actually… I think I’ve got something that could be the perfect ending for this movie. Something that’s pure horror. Even more than the original script.”

“The best horror doesn’t just show the monster as an external threat to defeat. It makes the monster an internal threat too, that says something unsettling about the protagonist and forces them to confront their own failings and weaknesses. It blurs the line between the monster and the protagonist. I’d start by drawing parallels between what the aunt and conwoman have in common.”

“How they’re both hurting people,” Hillary says. “The conwoman isn’t wrong the aunt is a monster, but the conwoman is still one too. Though it’s more than even that, there’s lots of kinds of monsters. But the aunt and the conwoman are both liars.”

“Exactly,” Cécilia agrees. “They’re both lying to someone—actually, the same person, the nephew—in pursuit of happiness. They’re after the same thing.”

“Why, though?” asks Hillary. “What’s making the conwoman do this, lie to and hurt someone we’re supposed to believe she loves? Monsters aren’t born, most of the time, they’re made.”

Emmett: “A monster? I wouldn’t go that far. She wants love and light in her life like anybody else. The things she does to get it are wrong, but I think her crime is a teenager’s crime, a mistake made for human reasons. She’s manipulative and imperfect, but I’d hope also a sympathetic figure.”

He tries to keep his tone curious rather than whining, hating himself for the thing inside him trying to feel.

GM: “I don’t think so,” Cécilia says, shaking her head. “Maybe if the aunt wasn’t in this, and the conwoman wasn’t going after the nephew. But the aunt is, and the conwoman is. It’s because like draws like. The conwoman is drawn to them, both of them, because she’s repeating history. If she’s lying to the person she loves, she’s probably done it before. Maybe past loves, but if you want to get to the heart of it, I’d say she’s lied to her family. And hurt them very badly. She’s looking for love here because she’s lonely. She hopes she can find it this time, but she’s repeating the same mistakes as last time.”

“So that explains why she’s after the nephew. But where does the aunt fit into this?” asks Hillary. “You said the conwoman was drawn to her.”

Cécilia nods. “There’s another quote, I don’t remember who it’s by or even how it goes—but we see things we wish weren’t true about ourselves in the people we most dislike.”

“How the aunt and the conwoman are both liars after the nephew’s affection,” Hillary raises.

“Oh, but it’s not even just the nephew,” says Cécilia. “I think the aunt is actually more important to the conwoman than the nephew.”

“The conwoman sees herself mirrored in the aunt, who’s a horrible monster. Not just who she is, but who she could be—a liar who’s gotten away with all the horrible things she’s done, which are so much worse than the conwoman’s, yet still manages to win the nephew’s love.”

“The conwoman is simultaneously intrigued, aroused, and repulsed by this. The aunt is everything about the conwoman she hates and fears, yet also wishes is true.”

“And that’s why the conwoman is doomed, and her pursuit of the nephew with the aunt involved can only end in failure and tragedy. Because you must confront the darkness within to confront the darkness without. For the conwoman, that would mean coming clean, and proving she actually is different from the aunt.”

“And the truth always comes out,” Hillary fills in. “Maybe it takes a while, but it always does. The conwoman found out about the aunt, after all, and she’s a better liar and worse monster than the conwoman is. That’s why con artists always move on, because people wise up eventually. You can’t fool someone forever. But the conwoman is looking for love—something you can’t just move on from.”

Cécilia nods. “The conwoman has forgotten that. She’s played herself and fallen victim to her own con—so she will lose the nephew and the love she hoped to obtain. Not because of the aunt. Because of herself.”

“That’s what we call a tragedy in the literary sense of the term—it’s not simply something sad that happens, like stubbing your toe, or even your mother suddenly dying. It’s when the protagonist brings about their own doom through a fatal flaw they could have forseen, but didn’t. It makes us throw up our hands and say ‘if only you’d done that! You could have gotten a happy ending!’ because it was so sadly, tragically preventable.”

Cécilia smiles at Elliot. “I’m so glad we had Em and Hil over, El. They’ve given us the best ending for this movie yet.”

Emmett: “Some people just have that magic touch,” El agrees, his mood twisting like a ballerina with broken heels. “Well, we’ll remember you two, that’s for sure—we already have your callback information, right?”

He walks them both to the door after they’ve finished chatting. “That was a nice conversation you two got rolling. I have to thank you for that.” He offers a hand first to the woman, then to Emil. His grip is comfortable and cool, but not strong.

“How did you find us, if you don’t mind me asking?” he asks the man. Something about Emil still perturbs him, and anything that takes his mind off the shit he just had to hear will be welcome.

Support: Emil takes the young man’s hand, his shake by contrast is a little too firm for comfort. “It was fate. And also a flyer. But fate is definitely in there somewhere, I’m sure. Hill actually is the one who found out initially, isn’t that right?”

GM: “Yeah,” she nods. “I think my mom and Cécilia’s have met each other a few times too.”

“Oh really, who is she?” Cécilia asks.

“Noelle Cherry.”

“I thought I recognized you from somewhere,” Cécilia smiles. “Congratulations to her on becoming majority leader.”

“Thanks. We were all really proud.”

Emmett: “Oh? My mom voted for her,” El says, a little surprised because it’s the truth.

“You should invite her to the screening, in any case, especially if we call you back. I’m sure she’d love to see you on the screen, and the more big names, the better for publicity.”

GM: “I’ll ask,” Hillary nods. “Commander’s Palace is great even if you weren’t doing the screening there.”

Emmett: If he makes small talk now, he won’t have to think about it.

“That’s why con artists always move on, because people wise up eventually. But the conwoman is looking for love—something you can’t just move on from.”

“I know, I’d probably be looking forward to the meal as much as the movie if it was somebody else’s baby,” El laughs, his throat feeling garrote-tight. “How’d you two meet?”

GM: “We both go to Tulane, and we took some classes together,” Hillary answers. “Anyway, we’re sure you’ve got other people waiting to audition. Good luck.”

Support: Before the couple leave, Emil takes a worn notepad out of his bag, scrawls an address on the little room remaining on the paper unstained by poorly erased calculations and drawings, tears the strip and hands it to El.

“You two seem like particularly intelligent and spirited people. If you’re interested in learning some deep truths about the world you live in, give me a call and come to this address for a study session. It might just change your life… if you’re open to it.”

Emmett: “That’s nice of you to offer, thank you,” El says, taking it with a smile and glancing at Cécilia.

I bet it’s a cult. A weird, black Jewish cult where they talk about baby names all night long.

Saturday afternoon, 22 September 2007

GM: The day’s remaining auditions go all right, which makes them both better and worse than ’Em’s.’

None of the other would-be teenage or college student actors go on about deistic etymology or leave as much of an impression. They also don’t twist his gut into a queasy pretzel over ‘character analyses’ into the cancer eating at his soul, or tell him that the object he so doggedly pursues is the same one that will destroy him.

The muffaletta he gets with Cécilia doesn’t taste like anything. She casually mentions how, “Oh, we forgot to actually do Hillary’s audition. Oh well, I’m sure she’ll do great from that talk we had.”

More auditions pass after that. Cécilia takes her leave after another several hours, citing extracurricular and familial commitments she’s put off to fit in the movie. She’s very excited though about how this is all going, "Though we still need to find our female lead. I’ll ask around some more. None of the girls really seemed quite ‘it.’

Emmett: “You really don’t think you can pull it off? It’d be nice, wouldn’t it? Not that you haven’t done so much already.”

He wants to hold her hand, but he needs both to hold the overlarge sandwich. He used to love these, getting them with Phil every time they were near this place, but something about its taste has soured on him. Olives and different kinds of pig. He doesn’t like eating dead things, he’s discovered the last few days. Maybe he’ll go vegetarian.

A vegetarian monster.

“You really got into talking about the ending back there,” he adds. “Do you think that’s the way to go? She lies in the bed she made?”

GM: “Absolutely,” Cécilia nods. “I think a better ending for the movie now would be the conwoman turning the gun on herself, after she realizes the truth and loses the nephew’s love.”

Seeing Em’s look, she adds, “Tragedies don’t hold back. Oedipus doesn’t. It’s not an ambiguous ending anymore, but the best stories don’t just raise ambiguities. They teach us lessons, truths we take with us.”

Emmett: His stomach clenches, and what little remains of his appetite evaporates faster than steam.

“It’s not about holding back, for me. I guess I’m thinking about if that’s something I believe in. Her killing herself, like that’s the only possible outcome. I get what you mean about ambiguities, too, even if I don’t feel the same way. But that’s not what’s holding me back.” He puts the muffuletta down, and regards her. “Humor me. Imagine you were her. As silly as that sounds, that’s what acting is, right? For real, take a moment, and you’re a lonely girl whose life’s been perfectly, frustratingly, unremarkable. And then you do something you never thought was possible, never dared to do: you told a lie, and the worst part is, it worked. It worked so well that now you’re happier than you’ve ever been, ever thought you could be. And then, when you can’t take it anymore, when you know you need to do something because you don’t know how to just stand still anymore… then, what would you do?”

He holds her eyes in his own, lets her see her own reflection carve itself into his retinas like the best kind of memory.

She is so damn beautiful.

She wants him dead, and she doesn’t even know it.

GM: Cécilia takes another slow bite from her sandwich. Dead things and all.

They say Hitler was a vegetarian, for what quitting meat is worth.

Emmett: And he was a liar, too. A really good one.

Damned if he shouldn’t run for president one day.

GM: He blew his brains out at the end of his story, too. It was around when the truth about the Holocaust came out, that ugliest of all lies, and people wised up to that conman too.

Cécilia does look beautiful today, though. She looks beautiful every day, but this Sunday she makes it look particularly casual. She’s got her pale blonde hair pulled into an (of course) french twist and ponytail, a practical ‘do for today’s practical-minded work. Em wonders how soft it’d feel to run his hands through. She’s got on a striped white and baby blue sundress. It’s a light, airy little thing with ruffles that goes well on her willowy figure, though it’s just high and thick enough that Em can’t get a good look at her cleavage. It suggests all he could have, but doesn’t go so far as to let him have anything either.

Cécilia wipes her mouth and sets the sandwich down.

“All right, putting myself in her shoes…”

“First, we have to consider these things in their full context, El. Because this isn’t just one, tragically or even humorously accidental lie, like if the conwoman misspoke her name to the nephew, was too embarrassed to correct him, and then she didn’t know how to walk back from it. This is a deliberate pattern. The conwoman has been hurting people all her life, going all the way back to her family. We can’t simply view what’s happening with the nephew as an isolated incident.”

“So if I were the conwoman… I would come clean to the nephew. I would admit to the lie, all the lies, and try to make things right with everyone I’d hurt. Maybe they wouldn’t forgive me. Maybe I’d lose my chance with the nephew. But that’s what it comes down to. I have to be doing this for other people, not just to ease my own conscience. I have to do what’s good for them even if it’s bad for me.”

Cécilia rests her chin thoughtfully on a slender hand, then says, “But I don’t think the conwoman has that in her. I don’t think she really cares about other people—or at least, not as much as she does about herself. I think the only circumstances under which she’d come clean are if she knew everything would be forgiven—and she’s scared she won’t be.”

“She’s very, very scared.”

“She’s so scared, in fact, that’s why she kills herself. Because if the conwoman doesn’t change her ways, she’ll inevitably become the aunt—that’s why it doesn’t really matter if the aunt’s exposed or not, because there’s going to be a monster either way. And the conwoman knows she can’t change, can’t walk back from the lies, because she’s too afraid to face justice.”

“She can’t change what she is, and she can’t live knowing what she is. So she takes the only way out.”

Cécilia smiles happily and reaches out a hand to take Em’s. Her touch is so light and soft.

“It’s a great story. And it’s all yours, El.”

Emmett: He watches her.

Cochon Butcher’s is rarely quiet. But to Emmett Delacroix, for one moment there is a perfect, apocalyptic silence, the kind that a dying star leaves in its wake.

“You make a good case, Cécilia,” he says. “A really good case. I’d like that movie, but I don’t think I could make it. It might be my story, but the ending’s all you.” He smiles at her. “So how could I not ask you to make it with me? You’re as much a part of this as I am. People should see you front and center.”

He holds up a finger before she can reply. “Look, just give it a think for a minute, alright? I’ve got to use the restroom.”

GM: Cécilia looks as if she’s about to say something, then nods. “All right, I can think about it for at least that long.”

Emmett: “Thanks. It means a lot to me. Everything you say does.”

Inside the bathroom—it’s one of those nice ones—he takes out his phone, a fancy flip somebody who’s parents loved them more had passed on to him, and calls his ace. He always prefers to call Miranda. It makes it easier to stay in character when he doesn’t have to look at her. Overweight is one thing. Obese people disgust him.

Everything still feels quiet. Things have suddenly become very, very clear.

“Em? Is that you? It’s been forever!” gushes the younger teenager’s nasally voice.

GM: “Yeah, it has—how’ve you been, Miranda?”

Forever? Bitch, we talked three days ago. Make another friend, and try not to eat this one.

He entertains her need for conversation for a precious minute before getting into it. “Look, did you get the chance to look at those pictures yet? I’m counting on you for that assignment, you know. And you’re so good at languages. Binary and human, I guess.”

All this time, feeling sorry for himself. But sometimes, you look in a mirror and you see yourself and realize that if you have to hate yourself, you might as well be something worth hating.

“I think I’m ready to read them now.”

GM: “Oh, I did!” Miranda squeals. It’s not the way Em thinks of most girls as ‘squealing,’ though. It makes him think of a pig.

“But you wouldn’t be reading them. I’d be reading them. Will be reading them. And you’ll be listening to me…”

Her thick voice is almost conspiratorial.

Emmett: He glances at his watch. “That sounds nice,” he croons. “Do you think you could read them to me now? If it’s not a pain, of course.”

GM: “No, no, of course it’s not!” Miranda protests. “But, um… here’s the thing. It was… really weird.”

Emmett: Jackpot.

“I believe you. What was it about?”

GM: “Well…” Miranda’s voice falters. “I mean, it was weird in the sense that it wasn’t readily comprehensible to me and the apparent—um, sorry, that sounded dumb. Well, smart. But, um, no. Dumb. I guess that’s me. Dumb for sounding smart. Huh. Huh. Hah.”

Her laugh isn’t light and tinkering like Cécilia’s, which makes Em think of crystal chimes. It’s more like an set of rusty lead pipes hung up on unevenly sized bits of string. Pipes a pig is snorting through.

Emmett: He laughs, too. Get on with it.

“Don’t worry about it. Just read me what you got.”

GM: “Oh, well, maybe it would be better if I, actually, paraphrased. Told it to you in my own words. Don’t worry! I’ll communicate, communicate everything of substance it contained. Um, sorry. I’ll tell you everything it says.”

Emmett: He smothers the irritation between pillow-sweet words.

“I don’t mind you just reading it straight, we can talk about it after—I just don’t have a lot of time to talk right now.”

GM: “Oh. Oh, well, I’m just saying because—because the writer was not a very articulate writer. And the handwriting was sloppy. Well, it was neat for the age group, actually very neat, but sloppy by way of comparison. It was a little kid’s diary. Huh. Huh huh. Hah hah.” Miranda laughs again like she just made some kind of joke.

“Oh, um, sorry, was that not funny?”

Emmett: He chuckles. “It’s a little funny. How do you know it’s a kid?”

GM: “W-well, it was like I said. The tenor of the language used and the style of handwriting. I mean, either it was by a little kid. Or someone who was not very bright. Did you take this from a stupid person?”

Emmett: “Miranda, you’re not like other girls. You’re clever, and you have a knack for solving shit like this. I’m not there yet. I need more context before I know where you’re coming from. So just tell me about the pages, as fully as you can. Can you do that for me, Mir?”

He idly picks his nose and wipes his finger on the sink’s underside.

GM: “Oh, yes! That’s what I wanted to do! Of course I can, Em, of—yes! I can! Sure!” the acne-faced teen gushes. She halts. “Um—sorry… okay, well, um, the diary is by a Yvette. Because she references her name in the interior contents. And she has allergies. To dairy.”

Emmett: Jesus fucking Christ, all this to know that macaroni and cheese gives her the shits.

GM: “Very severe allergies, that induce anaphylaxis. So, um. You said to assume, treat you like—I don’t think you’re stupid! You’re very intelligent, Em! You just said, um. Do… do you want me to ask you, if you know what that is? Because I can not ask you. If you’d be, um, offended.”

Emmett: “I know what it is. I had a friend who needed an epi pen. Just keep telling me about it. What was actually written down?”

Silently, he wonders if she actually benefits more from him exploiting her than he does.

GM: “Oh! I knew you were intelligent, Em! I’m glad I didn’t ask you, if you knew what that was!” Miranda gushes. “And you know from a friend, instead of from reading it, so you are… worldly.” She pronounces the word with an almost majestic air.

Emmett: “Miranda, the pages.”

GM: “Yes, yes, you’re right. The pages, you’re right—about everything. N-not literally everything, I mean it’s not like you’re a North Korean dictator and I’m agreeing with everything you say out of habit, I just think very-”

“Um. You’re right, the pages.”

Emmett: He waits.

GM: “So, Yvette ate some cheese once. Cheese product, that is, contained within a snack. I don’t think she knew it had cheese, because I don’t think she has a suicidal ideation, and there are better ways to kill yourself. Like, you could shoot yourself. It’s weird how girls take sleeping pills when they want to kill themselves, the success rate is lower than when you use firearms, which men do. Though it’s actually possible to survive. There’s this… um, sorry.”

Emmett: She turns the gun on herself.

He says nothing. People talk when they feel pressure.

GM: “So Yvette ate some cheese, that she didn’t know was cheese. From a schoolmate. At her school. And she experienced anaphylaxis. Well, food containing cheese product. So they took her to the nurse and the nurse actually thought she should go to the hospital. Because her reaction was so bad.”

“And they tried to call Yvette’s mom. But she wouldn’t answer the phone. And then the mom was in the hospital. Or, um. I don’t think. Maybe she was and maybe she wasn’t. The writing would benefit from more clarity.”

Emmett: “That. Talk about that.”

GM: “A girl died, just a week later!”

Miranda’s voice is suddenly panicking.

“The one who gave the snack! She died! Because she made Yvette and her mom sick!”

Emmett: For a moment, he says nothing.

His face hurts.

“You’re my best friend in the whole world right now, Miranda. You don’t know how much you’ve helped me.”

GM: “Emmmm….” Miranda’s voice is a low, almost panicked whine.

Emmett: He hangs up halfway through her answer, and turns off his phone. His heart tha-thumps, in and out of tune with the blood pounding in his ears.

Em doesn’t believe in God. But he believes in film. He believes in himself with a desperate, unhinged belief. And he knows a treasure when he’s given one.

How to do it, how to do it…

Ha. Hahahaha. Hahahaha.

He’s chuckling lightly to himself when he sits back down with Cécilia. “Sorry about that, I just had a funny thought. Do you know what you want, yet?” He smiles as he reaches out to touch her hand much like she touched his.

“Because I do.”

Emmett II, Chapter IV
Stolen Kisses

“I’m going to fuck your daughter, Abélia. It used to be lust, but now it’s personal. I’ll love her out of hate for you.”
Emmett Delacroix

Tuesday afternoon, 11 September 2007, PM

Emmett: Em makes the call (he made sure to get the number before they parted ways at the dance) at noon the next day. Easy enough to find some space during lunch.

“Artie, right?” he asks when the line is picked up. “Or do you prefer Mr. Dolan?”

Arthur: “Are you assuming my gender?” he asks. The man on the other line then gives a short chortle before telling Em that “Artie” is fine.

Emmett: “What?” Em doesn’t quite understand the joke, but he gives Artie a charity chuckle. Must be some weird, chef humor. Everybody says restaurants make people crazy. Or maybe Artie’s just cracked. Who knows? He’s still his best shot.

“Artie, then. I want to ask you something. The people you work for, that your family feeds and charms and does everything for. Do you like them?”

Arthur: “I like everyone,” Artie replies. “Why do you ask, Em?”

Emmett: Oh, bullshit. I thought this guy was on the level.

“Yeah, I like everyone too,” Em agrees. “But sometimes, I get the feeling I’m fighting uphill to get them to feel the same way about me. I’m kind of doing this in a roundabout way—I should ask, do you like movies?”

Arthur: “Are you trying to ask me out, Em?” he asks, offhandedly. “This is sounding a lot like you’re trying to ask me out. I have to say, Em, as flattered as I am…”

Emmett: This time the laugh is genuine. “You got me. I’m asking you to be my partner. I’m working on a film for Abélia Devillers, and I need somebody with connections to help me spread the word about it, and to vouch for it. Maybe even to host a screening at a certain high-class venue. I’m asking a lot ‘cause I have a good feeling about you, Artie—and you can save the fag joke, I’m not into redheads like that.”

Arthur: The redhead laughs. “I am sure I could change your mind given the chance, Em. I don’t like to brag, but I am a firecracker in the sack,” he responds, jovially. Then there is silence on the other end of the line as Arthur seems to ponder something for a moment. “I have to admit I am curious to say the least, Em. What exactly will this film of yours be about?”

Emmett: “The only thing worth half a damn or a full ride anymore, Artie. Love. It’s the new immortality, ‘cause we can’t kid ourselves we want to live forever anymore. People just want to believe in love.”

Arthur: “I want to believe in you, love,” Arthur replies, pink lips curling into a smile. Not that Em can see that over the phone. He then adds flirtatiously, “We should have lunch sometime and discuss things more intimately.”

Emmett: Wait, fuck, is this guy actually trying to sleep with me? Shit, I’m not ready for that kind of dedication.

Arthur: It’s possible. The redhead has been nothing but unabashedly flirtatious with the young man up to this point.

GM: The lunch bell rings overhead. The sound of footfalls and adolescent chatter fills the hallways as Emmett’s schoolmates make their ways back to class. He and the amorous chef have several remaining moments together.

That’s when Em spots the teacher spotting him talking into his cellphone. Mr. Lewis, who’s never liked him. Perhaps not so many moments.

“Emmett-” the frowning man calls out.

Emmett: “Time for me to get back to class—let’s talk some more, though. The sooner, the better. I have a feeling we’re going to be very happy we met each other, Artie.”

He dearly contemplates giving the Theological Values teacher the finger as he walks back to his classroom, but his self-interest wins out over his contempt. For now.

Tuesday afternoon, 11 September 2007, PM

GM: It’s not overlong before Cécilia calls Em the next day after school.

She’s glad to hear his meeting with her mother went so well. Abélia said he was “devilishly charming” and had a “spellbinding cinematic vision.” “She really couldn’t say enough good things about you, El.”

Emmett: “Lucky me—I look awful when I blush, but you can’t hear how red you’re making me. She’s really sweet, too—I bet she has great things to say about most people. I can see where you get it from.”

What are you, Cécilia? Are you in on it, too? I don’t think so. Mommy seems like she’s at least as flexible with the truth as I am.

He’s been thinking. Thinking incessantly. What is she? Is this real? There are probably other explanations. He could have been drugged. Maybe even pranked. Maybe Abélia is some kind of bizarre, perverted special effects artist.

But he loves his stories. He loves the grandeur and whimsy, the terrible, unreal realness of them.

Abélia scares him. But she’s obsessed him, too.

GM: “Now you’re the one who’s making me blush.” Em can’t see over the phone, but Cécilia’s tone sounds like she might be.

“I’m really glad the two of you got along so well. Maman says you met Simmone too—and that she pranked you.” The smile behind her voice is audible. “She can be a little terrible.”

Emmett: “The sweetest kids always are. That’s how people learn that their actions affect others. I was a handful when I was two, too.”

I had brains and balls. Simmone has a she-devil’s teat. That one’ll come out an utter mess.

“She got me good, though. I’m sure her first memory of me was a look of complete confusion.”

Bitch. Ugh, I can’t call a kid a bitch. Little asshole. Little fucker. There we go. Little fucker.

GM: Cécilia laughs. “Well, hopefully it’s the first of many happier ones for you both. Do you think you might have a part for a toddler in your movie? She’s already a bit of a diva.”

Emmett: Waiting on Maman to give me the rubber stamp before jumping in completely, were you? Interesting.

What’s the bat’s game? She loves her daughters, but not like most people do. Which is a given.

“Why, I rather fancy that one would have sold any human…”

He convinced her he was good for her daughter. Insofar as she could be convinced. Which means that her ideas of good parenting are probably a few pears short of an edible arrangement.

And yet, and yet, she promised him a guillotine, too. She’s going to ruin everything, unless he makes it too inconvenient for her to oust him at time of her choosing.

I’m going to fuck your daughter, Abélia. It used to be lust, but now it’s personal. I’ll love her out of hate for you.

“We ought to be able to—anything I make, I’m making for you and yours, first of all.”

The longer he waits, the more things get out of control. The lower the buy-in, the more likely Abélia calls his bluff.

“Hey, this is crazy, but what are you doing tonight?” he asks. He’s doing that thing again, where he talks first and thinks later. He’s learned to trust the part of himself that doesn’t think too hard.

GM: Cécilia laughs again. The time is around 6.

“On a Tuesday? Well, now that I’m home, mostly homework. Mine, and helping my sisters with theirs.”

Emmett: “Ah, well. I know better than to get between you and your family. I can show you another time. It’s best late at night, anyway. Say hi to your sisters for me.”

Ask, ask, ask. I’m the perfect boy and I’m doing the right thing, but it doesn’t hurt you to ask, does it? I said it was late at night, so you can even take the initiative and suggest what I can’t. Ask, dammit.

GM: “Show me what?” Cécilia asks, intrigued. “You could stop by later in the evening, if it won’t take too long.”

Emmett: “That’s the thing,” he says. “It’s kind of an excursion. There’s a place I like, in the Quarter. Not like a club or anything, just a spot outside—it’s by the river. When it’s night there, you can see the whole bridge. I used to go there a lot, as a kid.” He laughs softly. “It’s beautiful. I just thought of it, now. Silly idea, anyway.”

And just how badly do you want to pay me back for all my kindness? You know I’ll never push, so how safe are you really going to play things with sweet, sexy El? Come on, you French stereotype. You’re really going to leave him hanging when the ball’s in your court? I don’t think so, Cici. I think your whole life, you’ve been making other people happy. You don’t know how not to. So say it.

He counts the seconds and waits. Say it.

GM: The seconds pass.

“All right, El. That does sound very sweet, and not at all silly. It is a school night, so no more than an hour, all right? How’s 9 for you to pick me up?”

Emmett: “That’ll work,” he laughs. “I’ll be there.”

GM: “Great,” Cécilia smiles. She adds that she’d also called Em to talk about “the fine details” of making his film—actors, equipment, budgets, dates, and similar production-related concerns. Cécilia’s mother, who she describes as “More of a big picture person” has left those to her. They can talk about that stuff later tonight, though. Maybe Em’s riverside spot will even give them some creative inspiration.

Emmett: Hanging up a short time later, he breathes in, holding for a count of five before exhaling. Meditative bullshit he doesn’t believe in.

But he’s going to have to start believing in a lot of things if he wants to come out of this.

Maybe even that he deserves to.

Tuesday evening, 11 September 2007, PM

GM: Em’s parents always told him they weren’t made of money when he wanted something. The two social sciences professors make a comfortable enough living, but that never made them comfortable enough to get him his own car. The past few years have been rough.

Em makes do hitting up Will Simpson for a ride. The hospitality entrepreneur’s son is possessive over his own set of wheels, but proves all-too generous with his sister Julia’s. He cheerfully lends Em the keys to her red minicooper without a second thought, or even inquiries as to when he plans to return the car.

It’s easy to be generous with another person’s things.

Emmett: Okay, so it’s not his preferred ride. He makes do with what he has. It’s after making a few other calls that he’s on the road, waiting outside the Devillers household and shooting a text to Cécilia within. He keeps the engine running. He doesn’t ever want to be back inside that place.

GM: The teeth-like iron gate silently swings open to admit Em’s car. The white house looms tall and large over its surroundings, and the drooping willows’ shadows are dark and long. Em can make out motion from behind the windows. It’s apparent that far more people than Cécilia are home.

It seems almost certain that she is.

Emmett: Engine running. How fast can a fucking minicooper drive, again?

GM: The faint, laughing rustling of wind through the trees is his only answer.

A text shoots back from Cécilia after a moment.

My family’s old fashioned. Ring for me at the door, please? :)

Emmett: Oh, come on. What happened to it being a school night?

Ring he does, though. He only looks half a twat, with the bright red cooper parked behind him. The other half is all grace and gentleman, devilishly charming smile in place like he can’t wait to Fall.

Bullshit Old World monster and her bullshit Old World manners.

GM: It’s not overlong before the door swings open. The woman who answers is pale, willowy, and has Abélia’s face.

For a heart-stopping moment he thinks it’s her. But the eyes are light rather than dark. The hair is blonde. She’s dressed in a more casual sleeveless white top and blue skirt, too. It’s Cécilia.

Emmett: Stay focused. Tonight won’t be like last time. Tonight, she belongs to you.

The arrogance keeps him strong.

“Hi! You look great. How was homework?”

GM: “Thanks, El, so do you,” Cécilia smiles as she gives him a light greeting hug.

“Yvette and Yvonne had a bunch of fractions to do tonight. They got it down really well when Maman measured things in actual cups for them.”

Emmett: I would have just explained it in terms of interracial marriage, I bet Hitler Youth would have picked that up real quick.

He accepts the hug with a bit of surprise he doesn’t have to fake. He’s always just a little taken aback when he realizes he’s won people over. Trust is the only thing you can’t get back once you deal it out, and people keep giving it away anyways.

“That’s a cute way of doing it,” he says. “My mom taught me with cooking. Grits and things.”

GM: “That must have been a tasty way of doing it,” Cécilia laughs as she follows him to his borrowed car.

Emmett: “Absolutely, if not a super educational one. Neither my culinary or mathematical skills are much improved from when I was ten.” As they pull out of the driveway, he jumps straight into conversation. The more she’s reacting, the better. “I wanted to say, I’m grateful for everything you’re doing. I wasn’t sure at first, but this project has given me a lot of…I don’t know. Fire. Among other things.”

GM: “That’s wonderful, Em. And, actually, a good segue into…”

True to Cécilia’s earlier word, she starts asking about specifics at this point. Scripts, locations, prospective actors, estimated budgets, the while nine yards. Her mother knows some “friend of a friend” people who work in the film industry. She can put Em in touch with them to get production started.

Emmett: He plays along for the moment. He’s been thinking too hard about it to not get some of it out through discussion.

The script is his first concern—if nothing else, he needs to see it on paper before he knows what exactly he wants it to look like on screen. He’s typed up broad, messy notes already—how could he not have, after such an inspiring meeting?—but he’ll be writing like a demon over the next week at least. If he’s going to be directing, though, he’ll need to get somebody he trusts to do the lion’s share of the actual, line by line writing. He has his own ‘friend’ in the local film industry—not that Mom would approve if she knew they were talking—but he’d love to put his friend in touch with hers.

Inwardly, he feels a coil of unease at that particular revelation. Abélia wanted to have her eyes on production, or if nothing else he has to assume so; which means he’ll have to be careful if he wants the vague shape of his scheme to coalesce e into sharp reality.

Actors are an interesting question, as is the budget. It might seem backwards, but he can’t help but feel that he’ll have to tailor the budget to fit the film, not the other way around. He has no intentions of doing anything that would require resources far beyond what any amateur could whip up, given time and patience, so he has to trust in his vision’s conservatism before he reconciles or compromises it with budgetary constraints.

Actors will tie into that, as well. El thinks it’ll be key to actually make wide use of amateurs, particularly people their own age who will make up the core of the cast.

“I’d feel a little silly trying to find pros when I’m still a rookie myself,” he laughs. “But I think that managed properly, coached well, even amateurs can deliver pretty awesome stuff. I was also going to recruit local—not just New Orleans, but St. Martins and McGeehee, other schools like them. People like seeing faces they know, and I have a feeling that this is going to rely as much on presentation as it is on its own two legs, you know?”

GM: Cécilia nods. “That’s a good way to save on budget costs, too, if students are participating in this for fun. I know a bunch of girls at McGehee who’d probably like to.” She smiles. “Me included, when Simmone already does.”

Emmett: What’s this? Fancy yourself an actress?

“Almost cheating, showing your mother her own daughters’ faces on screen. Then again, maybe I’d be cheating myself not to put you in front of a camera—you have a great energy for it.”

Looks. You have looks.

“Have you done any acting, before? I feel like there was definitely a school play or two in your past.” The more he can keep the conversation on her, the better tonight will go.

GM: Cécilia nods again. “I was in a couple plays when I was younger. I wouldn’t expect a lead role or anything, of course. That should go to someone with more experience.”

Emmett: “If experience was king, I wouldn’t be behind the wheel. We’ll see. I’m thinking the main character should be a girl our age, anyway. If I don’t get to set my sights low, neither should you.”

It’s a short drive. Palatial estates give way to merely beautiful ones when they cruise through Riverbend. Then those make way for the apartments on the outer edge of Mid-City, the closest thing that neighborhood has to a pretty face.

Then the Quarter’s in sight. Em and El might disagree about why, but it’s the best part of the city.

“I want to live here, one day,” he says, unbidden but wistful. “I’m close by, in the Marigny, and it’s fine—but it’s not like here. I mean, yeah, the Quarter is crazy and a little dangerous and you get all types. But it has a soul, too. Character, I guess, even ignoring the history, the culture, the architecture, though those definitely add to it. You know when you’re in the Quarter. You can feel it in the air, like too much chlorine in a pool. It’s a place. Not a zip code or a bunch of streets or some gerrymandered district. It breathes, almost.”

He shakes his head. “Yeah, if I’m going to film anywhere in the city, I have to start here.”

GM: Cécilia is flattered that El wants to give her the lead role, but demurs that they should “at least look into” other girls with more acting experience, especially ones who want to pursue careers in the performing arts. “This is the sort of thing you’d put on a college application—it’ll probably be a lot more useful for them than me.” Still, they can consider casting once development of the script is fully done.

She smiles as the conversation turns to other matters. “That’s a beautiful description of the Quarter, El. You should use it as a line in your movie somewhere.”

She looks thoughtful for a moment. “A lot of people complain how Disneyland-ish parts of the Quarter are getting. But there’s a lot of parts that don’t, too.”

“A lot of people complain how Disneyland-ish parts of the Quarter are getting. But there’s still plenty of parts that have a ton of character, too. That’s really touching, even inspiring, how that’s what the Quarter still is to you.”

Emmett: “What can I say? Once I get something into my head, it doesn’t slide out easily. I get attached. What about you? Do you have a favorite place? Two countries to call home, you’re more spoiled for choice than I am.”

GM: Cécilia thinks. “There’s a lot of great spots. But I really like the Garden District. You can walk around for hours looking at all of those beautiful old homes and sculptures. It feels so at harmony with nature, too, with how many trees and gardens there are. I guess that explains the name. I’m really glad to get to live there.”

Emmett: “Nature’s important,” he says.

Believe me, I got told how important three times a day, just sitting around the damn table. Look at me, Dad—did you think I wasn’t listening?

“Especially these days. People don’t want to be told they have to take care of it, don’t want to pick up their mess or worse, stop making it in the first place. Not that I can talk. I’d be a hippie if I wasn’t too busy being a hypocrite. What are y’all like, politically? I know your mom’s pretty active in that world.”

He parks the car near Jackson Park—fucking Quarter parking, and not even his car, but shirk the meter and he’ll have to explain the ticker to Simpson the Simp—and says, “It’s just a short walk. Kind of a hidden spot. Undiscovered, maybe.” He offers her his arm out of his car.

GM: “Oh, Maman’s much more focused on philanthropy than politics…” Cécilia answers his initial question. “People in both those worlds rub elbows, but they disagree a lot less over the former. It’s much easier to actually help people through philanthropy.”

She takes his arm as he opens the door. “Lucky me to have a local guide.”

Emmett: “Or maybe unlucky. The places you find by yourself are the ones you can never forget, I think.”

He keeps up the mildly flirty small talk as he walks her to the place.

He remembers when he found it, three years ago. In a world before Katrina. Before the anger, before he just couldn’t try anymore—he remembers finding this place.

He almost wishes he could find it all over again. A small kindness, a tiny piece of himself, for her to see.

“Like I said,” he says as he leads her through Woldenberg Park, an ugly name for a beautiful place. He hops over the picturesque railing by the riverside trail, and offers her a helping hand to do the same. The spot is a rocky outcropping, not too sharp to sit on. “You can see everything.”

You can.

The sky is blue-black, a suit too rich for church and too plain for a party. The skyline of this side of the Crescent Connection’s gobbled up most of the stars, trapped them in its lights like burning flies in a metal web, but there are still some. Still a precious, bare few, burning across the sky eons after they’ve died. The bridge itself burns less brightly, but more colorfully. Headlights and taillights shine through the night, the late-night rush flooding the Connection with angels and devils both—the golden headlights headed one way, the red glare of the taillights going the other.

It’s a quiet spot, and it’s beauty is quiet, too.

But it’s there.

GM: It’s a small spot, and it’s hard for the two teenagers to avoid touching as they sit. Cécilia’s skin is soft, and she smells really nice, too—some kind of light floral scent that the mind doesn’t notice but the nose does.

“Oh, that is beautiful,” Cécilia murmurs. “I’ve been down this park before, but I never thought there was anything past the railing. You can almost forget the rest of the city is behind you, like you’re floating over the water.”

Emmett: “See, I’m not the only one who has a knack for describing things,” El smiles.

“Look, I thought you should know… I haven’t done this before.” He waves a hand around him at the setting, and by extent the two characters within it. When it comes down, it’s carefully, quietly near hers.

Careful, says the director. Don’t overplay your hand, El… and don’t you dare fold.

“I’ve had crushes, and I’ve had the shitty high school dating experience, and I guess I’m kind of good at it. But this… you… feel different.” His eyes bore into hers, lose themselves in a blue that lets him forget the terrible, mirthfully dark gaze that’s seared itself into the back of his mind. “You feel… special.”

GM: “That’s very sweet of you to say, El,” Cécilia smiles back. “Why is that? I’m not that different from most girls at McGehee, I don’t think.”

“Well,” she amends with some mirth that seems so much lighter than, but still not altogether unlike her mother’s, “besides getting to see a view this pretty on a school night.”

Emmett: “Do you really think that?” He shakes his head in not-at-all-feigned disbelief. “I don’t think most girls are as selfless as you, or as generous. Most wouldn’t have gone out of their way to pay me back just for doing the right thing, beyond treating me as a guest in their own home.”

“I guess what I’m saying, is… yes, you are special. If for no other reason that people like you, happy people who only make others happy, are rare. And you should take that from me, even if you don’t want anything else.”

Attaboy. You have to play it like a dance—and it’s on her to follow your lead.

GM: “Oh? What else would I want from you?” Cécilia asks, not uninvitingly, even as she smiles at El’s answer regarding her ‘specialness’. The breeze over the water is blessedly cool in the hot and muggy September weather, still stubbornly clinging to summer’s unforgiving heat.

Emmett: It’s about a straight line as he’s going to get.

Em has no idea if he’s a good kisser—the idea of asking has always distinctly bothered him, like he’s giving somebody permission to know he’s human as well.

But he knows the art of when to take, the three-card-monte of giving somebody they don’t ask for and leaving them thinking they did. It can’t be coercive, not overtly, unless you don’t mind burning any future bridges with your mark.

He moves quickly—too quick to stop properly, too slow to be bum-rushing her, and his mouth covers hers before she can process what’s happening.

Another dirty trick. But it’s all about the timing, like any other sleight—when the answer isn’t clearly no it’s always “maybe.”

GM: Em can feel Cécilia’s initial surprise at the kiss: the tension in her body and the accelerated beating of her heart. Her mouth is soft and tender against his, and feels very nice. It’s no great stretch for the teenager to picture her breasts having a similar texture, if he were to fondle those. Or her lower lips, if he were to plant his dick inside her. Maybe she’d scream if he didn’t ask there. Or maybe she’d just whimper. It’d be a soft sound, too, like a wounded doe. Perhaps she’d cry. They’d be soft and silent tears, slowly trickling down those pained and disbelieving blue eyes as he pinned down her wrists. He’d ravish her, fuck her, ruin her, make her feel the same emptiness eating away his own soul like cancer. He’d make her a slut, make her a whore, make her cheap, make her family revile her—he’d drag this pampered princess off her throne and bring her down to his level—

It’s almost a disappointment when El realizes she’s kissing him back.

Cécilia looks at him when he finally pulls away. Her cheeks are tinged faintly red as her chest softly rises and falls. She doesn’t say anything, initially—leaving an empty canvas for his words to paint over.

Emmett: “I couldn’t say,” he says softly, finally answering her question. “But anything you’d want, I’d be happy to give.”

His hand’s moved closer to hers, too, inviting but not forceful. Something mild and sweet after a bit too much spice.

But he knows it’ll be fine. He’s driving, now.

And besides. She liked it.

Thursday evening, 13 September 2007, PM

It’s two days later when Em swings by a condo in the French Quarter, right by Harrah’s and the Windsor Court. According to his parents, and especially his mother, he’s not supposed to be here. He’s not supposed to be doing a lot of things.

When he rings the door after inputting the gate code, it’s answered by a half-clothed girl who looks old enough to be in the same grade as him. She looks Em over once and giggles.

“Oh… you’re not who I was expecting.”

The man she lets him inside to see (“you might as well, now…”) looks around three times her age. Ronnie “Ron” Landreneau is a wide-nosed, mustached man in his middle years with a receding hairline and expanding paunch that speaks to a life of comfortable self-indulgence. Scattered articles of female clothing also speak to it.

Em’s uncle himself is reclining on a leather couch while football plays on the TV. His condo’s décor is quirkishly tasteful falling just short of tacky, and includes a painting with ‘I play so much zydeco—make your feet hurt’ lettering and a Saints flag with the team’s chant. Em’s mother had once remarked the place is more than her brother should be able to afford even with his film director’s income.

“There’s my man. How ya been, Em?” Ron grins, extending a fist for him to bump in seeming alternative to getting up. Football noises continue to sound from the TV.

Emmett: “Hey, Ron. I’m good. Better than good, I’m young. Can I get you a drink? I think I still remember where you keep the good shit.”

He returns the fist bump and adds a stupid little flair to it. “If I’d known you had company over, I would have come later. Or just bought my own.”

Ron’s a good uncle. Actually, he’s a terrible uncle, but he’s the best bad uncle a boy like Em could want. And Em is a good nephew. He knows how to keep a secret, and he’s very good at getting secrets to keep.

He plops down next to Ron and smiles at the girl. “Can you see the resemblance? I get all the good looks from his side of the family. One or two from him, even.”

GM: The girl giggles again. Then she looks Em over again. “Oh, I can, though you’re a lot thinner…”

She gives a startled yelp as Em’s uncle swats her backside. Not hard enough to really hurt, but hard enough to really sting. “You’re getting the drinks for that.”

She rubs her rear. “Ow, fine…”

Ron’s grin returns as the girl’s bare feet lightly smack against the floor.

“Savor it while it lasts, kid. I was young and thin once too.”

“So what brings you around? It’s been… sheeeit, how long? I’m betting your mom doesn’t know you’re over.”

Emmett: “Six months, probably. And nah, she doesn’t. But how could I stay away? New school, more rules, and she doesn’t like me seeing you. She talks about you, though.”

She doesn’t.

GM: “Yeah, talks shit about me,” Ron scoffs at the remark on his sister. Exclamations go up from the televised football game.

Emmett: “I actually came to pick your brain about the biz. Remember last year, when we were talking about me maybe coming to work with you? That day might have come, I’m thinking.”

GM: Em’s uncle smiles at his next statement. “Well how ‘bout fucking that. We’re not filming our next Katrina movie yet, market’s been a damn gold mine for those, but there’s a campaign commercial for one of Joe Kelly’s kids we could fit you in. Few early parts like that’ll get you a bigger one in the real movies.”

Emmett: He pauses. “That might work really well, actually, but I have something bigger. A real opportunity. But it’s strange and a little dicey, so I’ve got to ask going in, Uncle Ron,” (Ron is that kind of uncle who enjoys the full address when he’s being wheedled) “can I trust you with a secret? A really good one?”

GM: The girl comes back with several filled glasses. Ron smirks at Em, then looks at her.

“What he said earlier about his looks? He’s right. His dad’s ugly as shit. Dunno what my sister saw in him. She had a body like you wouldn’t believe back in the day—could’ve had her pick of any guy.”

The smirk widens. “From how Em turned out, maybe she still did…”

He winks at his nephew. “Secret’s been safe with me.”

Emmett: Em blinks a little at that. He knows the two don’t like each other, but sometimes he isn’t sure when Ron’s joking.

He is, right?

Doesn’t matter. Can’t get distracted.

“You know the Devillers, right? The rich French lady and her daughters everybody’s trying to impress? I’ve gotten friendly with her oldest daughter.” He coughs and grins with the bare minimum of shame, a pale mirror of the older liar’s sins. “Maybe a bit more than friendly. And her mom, Abèlia—she wants to help me get into film school. Actually, she wants to help me make a movie.”

GM: The girl, meanwhile, just laughs along at Ron’s remark as she sips from her drink.

“Damn,” Em’s uncle says between one of his own. “You must have been a hell of a lay. How was she?”

Emmett: The moment Em takes isn’t to struggle with his conscience. He’s just letting his smile grow a little more discreet. Like he practiced in the mirror this morning when he couldn’t sleep except for dreams of dark, fluttering laughter. The anecdote he tells is obviously exaggerated for comedic and scandalous effect, but just as clearly based on something.

“There is one slight catch, though,” he says, mock-sheepish. “She doesn’t know my real name.”

GM: Ron laughs at the story and remarks on how “French girls always put out fast.” The girl laughs along with him.

“Yeah, I bet that’s not all she doesn’t know,” he then says. “Trickier though when you’re making a movie with her.”

Emmett: “Tricky, yeah. But not impossible. And here’s the crazy part—her mom knows. But she’s, um—look, there’s a reason I’m coming to you with this. My parents wouldn’t understand, but you will. I don’t know where else to go with this.” He purses his lips as he pretends to hesitate a moment longer before he says, in that perfect secret-singing voice:

“I know a secret about Abèlia Devillers.”

The delivery has to be perfect. You can’t walk back a story like this.

GM: Ron’s about to take another sip of his drink when he blinks at Em’s declaration.

“Mama Abèlia knows you’re bullshitting her daughter?”

The girl seems undecided on whether to laugh again at that ‘joke.’

Emmett: “Yeah. It came up when she told me to take my clothes off when I visited her after school Monday.”

GM: The girl isn’t undecided anymore. Her laughter joins Ron’s uproarious guffaw.

“How about fucking that! Em, you smooth bastard!”

Emmett: “It’s an awkward position!” Em protests, his indignation well-feigned. “I had no idea what to do! Sweat was running down my asscrack, I thought I misheard her—but I couldn’t make this shit up if I wanted to. But the thing is, Ron, I don’t know who I’m supposed to go to about the super rich French bitch who’s gently blackmailing me into having sex with both her and her daughter.” He clutches his forehead. “It’s hilarious, but it’d be funnier if it wasn’t happening to me!”

GM: Em’s uncle snorts. “Awkward my ass. That stuff doesn’t take an instruction manual.”

“Not sure what you’re coming to me for, though. I’d just keep doing what you’re doing. Get her on as a producer if you haven’t already. If you had already, get more money out of her. Milk her sweet tits and lap up every drop that comes out.”

Emmett: “Yeah, that’s good right now. But you’ve gotta understand, Ron, milk sours. Right now everything’s sweet, but I’m only safe as long as the lady feels like I’m a fun fuck. And yeah, maybe I didn’t mind the first time, but I don’t wanna spend my whole life as Abèlia’s booty call. The moment she’s done with me, she can take away everything she’s given me, and burn my reputation at the same time. I think she’s banking on my film being good, but with her name being the best part about it.”

He drums his fingers on the table between them. “But if I make something so good, so loved, that she can’t pretend I don’t exist: then, maybe I’ll have some shit to shovel back at her. But the only way I do that is if this movie is the biggest film event this city’s seen in years. And a movie like that, at a time like this—that can bring a lot of people what my redneck uncle calls ‘high cotton.’ You see why I’m hitting you up yet? Other than your dating advice?”

GM: “Well, here’s some right now. Don’t make such a big deal. Yeah, the woman ain’t gonna marry you. And you’re not gonna spend the rest of your life as her booty call. Every thing like this ends sooner or later.” Ron smirks. “Unless she does marry you. But I wouldn’t bet on it. No, she’s eventually gonna get bored and move on to some other young piece of ass. But she’s not gonna ruin you just ‘cause you went into this with open eyes. Why would she? You think she does that to all her booty calls? Unless you’ve done something to really piss her off, she’ll just drop you and move on.”

He leers at the girl. “All this sounding like good news to you, babycakes?”

“Yes, definitely,” she nods.

“If you’re still worried or you really want out when the movie’s done, though, I’d find some other sweet piece of ass to distract her. This lady’s a cougar, right? Give her another mouse to go after.”

Emmett: “Yeah, maybe,” Em says. “But there’s more than survival at stake here, Ron. This isn’t about survival anymore.” He clutches at his chest. “It’s about power. You get power, right? The thing that makes everything about everything. Look, I could just ride this out, but then I’m left out in the cold and her bitch to boot. As long as I rely on her, I have to keep her happy. But if the movie becomes something bigger than her, then suddenly she needs me for more than a dick. If she controls production, I got nothing. But if you got in on it with me… then the problem starts to look more like an opportunity. For both of us.”

GM: “Long as you’re taking her money, Em, she has power,” Ron declares somberly. “Trust me on that.”

“You really want her out of this… make it without her. Screw and dick around and give her a fat lot of talk ’til she gets tired of you.”

Emmett: “I wanna make it without her,” he says. “But I know a better way to do it. Get in bed with me, Ron. She can bring influence and money to the screening, can get the show out in front of powerful people, but if I have you helping me make the actual movie, there’s not a goddamn thing stopping me from becoming a real name. Even if it isn’t really mine. When’s the last time one of your projects had a name like hers on it? There’s a lot of ways this can go good or bad for me, but it’s nothing but golden eggs for you. Get your name on this film, do some mentoring and get your name all twined up in hers, it’ll come out clean. Respected.”

He looks uncle Ron dead in the eye. “I got an itch, Ron. I got an itch for people to talk about me. To wonder about me when they go to bed. To respect me so hard it almost feels like they know me. I got an itch. I don’t think I got it from my dad or my mom. I definitely didn’t get it from the Cajun side of things—they’re itchy in a whole other way. I think I got it from you. And it’s time to scratch.”

GM: Ron smiles. “Well, kid, here’s some of the ways we can.”

He first quizzes Em a little further about intentions regarding Abèlia, and cautions his nephew against “shoveling shit” upon she who holds the purse strings. When a director clashes against their producers, or an actor against their director, things can get real ugly. Usually for the latter party.

“Back when I worked in Hollywood, there was an actress who got a little greedy. She was sleeping with her director and had a good thing going, but then she tried to blackmail him with for a leading part. Threatened to release pictures to his wife. Know what happened? He called up some friends. They got her a leading part, in another film. Another kind of film.”

He adds, deadpan, “Masked guy slashed her throat on screen and stuck his dick in the spurting wound.”

Then he winks. “Or so I heard. More likely she lost the part and knew better than to bother him again.”

When Ron hears Em simply wants more control over production and to rely less on Abèlia, he’s more sympathetic. “What every director wants. Short of paying for the whole movie yourself, there’s no way to have total control. But there’s ways to get closer.”

First, there’s crowdfunding. Em’s a popular kid at school, isn’t he? He and his friends could go around school asking for donations. Include prizes like X dollars gets you a free ticket to the showing, a nice seat, or a minor part in the movie.

There’s also fiscal sponsorship. If a nonprofit company with 501©(3) takes the film under their umbrella, the movie can accept tax-deductible charitable donations. Since investors aren’t actually losing money when they open their checkbooks, well, it’s a lot easier to get them to. Or to open those checkbooks wider. (Tax-deducted funds cannot be used to market or distribute the film, however, which is illegal.) Em could get his classmates to ask their parents for funds this way.

There are lots of organizations which provide fiscal sponsorship to films, all with different criteria. Ron can get Em’s movie cleared by one. They take a 5-8% fee from every donation, but in his eyes, the benefits are worth it for a newer director. It’s money you might not have made anyway, and the prestige of being associated with a sponsoring organization (they provide an official letter and everything) is a good way to impress would-be investors that your film is serious.

There are also grants—what essentially amounts to free money, with some qualifiers. Documentaries get the most grants by far, but narrative films with a social impact can also qualify. Many grants are oriented towards students and young people, too. If Em doesn’t mind sleeping with another woman twice his age, he can probably get an even bigger one.

Also, it goes to say that you can’t simply accept these kinds of donations into your Bank of Columbia checking account (not unless you’re relying purely on personal donations for an obviously home film, anyway). Forming an LLC gives a place for funds to go, protects you from personal liability, and keeps your film yours. Em will want to register his script with the U.S. Copyright Office and assign its rights to his LLC. Otherwise, Abèlia could do whatever she wants with his script. She could even register it in her name and deny Em the rights to make a film based off it, if she felt like it.

Ron’s got an entertainment lawyer who can take care of all that stuff. He doesn’t expect Em wants to be involved.

Finally, there’s the matter of Ron’s own, direct involvement. There’s two ways they can do things.

First, Ron can bring in his film company, Zodiac Productions. He can finagle Em into getting a starring role, and credit as a scriptwriter, but a lot will be out of his nephew’s hands—for good and ill. Zodiac will own the rights to the film and get to make changes to Em’s vision. Em also won’t get to be director—that’s not happening at 17. However, the upshot is that Zodiac can bring in their own investors. Abèlia will just be one voice out of many, useful but not indispensable. This will also mean a higher budget for the film and more publicity. Em won’t have to worry about anything outside of writing and acting. Essentially, Em will be trading Abèlia as his master for Zodiac, and a bigger budget for a longer production time (depending on just how big the film is able to get).

All of this is contingent on his script being good, of course. If the producers don’t like it, forget it.

The second option is that Ron can sign on as a producer and help with fundraising, but the movie will still belong to Em. He can be director and do whatever he wants, subject of course to the will of his producers—Abèlia most prominently among them. How much influence she has will depend on how much of her money Em wants to take, and how much he’s able to raise from other sources. Ron makes clear that while he’s willing to contribute and bring up Em’s film around others, he won’t be able to bring in the same amount of cash as a private individual that Abèlia or Zodiac could. The film will stay a ‘local’ production and be put together by Em’s AV club and other high school friends. If Zodiac took over, it’d all be done by a professional film crew—“Though some girls might get parts, if they’re willing to get on their knees,” Ron blasely observes.

“That’s the lay of things,” he finishes. By the time he does, the three’s glasses are empty and the skies outside are purpling with dusk. “So how do you wanna scratch that itch, kid?”

Emmett: Em sits still and listens while Ron talks. He hates listening. He can do it in conversations, but the moment somebody’s giving him a lecture, his attention slips. But he wants to pay attention. Needs to.

This is the moment his scheme breaches reality, the point of no return. Then he feels it, that irascible disorientation, that delayed thump of reaction, the stutter of a heartbeat tripping in its stride.

A single thought: What the fuck am I doing here? and then a terrible appreciation of the absurdity of it, of his silly little life, his silly little dreams, his silly little quest. He thinks, for a moment, that he is utterly doomed—and feels a terrible glee.

“Well,” he says, shaking his head as if to clear it when Ron asks the question. “It sounds like if I want to keep this, I’ll need to sweat for it too. That’s at least a language I understand. But I guess I’m wondering if there isn’t a way to make the best of all worlds.” He drums his fingers on the table.

“Here’s a question. Bear with me. Can I publish the film under any name? Same with the LLC shit. Is there any reason I can’t conduct all that business with a name of my choice?”

GM: “You mean like a stage name?” Ron asks.

Emmett: “Yeah. Like a stage name.”

GM: He shrugs. “Marilyn Monroe didn’t get famous as Norma Mortenson. Legal shit like the LLC and copyright’s all got to be in your real name, but what goes in the movie can be whatever the fuck you want.”

Emmett: “Okay. So let’s talk.”

Talk they do. Em has questions—questions about eyeballing the finances, about finding and using local actors—the project’s shape is a small, local one. He’s aiming for a feeling of high quality, but also the intimacy that comes from local, even undiscovered actors and shooting. He does wonder about the feasibility of talking to some of Ron’s people, Zodiac techies and film professionals who he can recruit to consult. It’s important to Em that the movie look like a real movie—he doesn’t want anybody to glance at a wobbling frame and think the work is amateur.

Then there’s the question of length. The movie doesn’t need to pass ninety minutes, and might be closer to an hour. The question becomes, then, how long a project like that demands in real time. How many months? How much money?

That’s the most important part. How big is the cage he’s built himself, and how tight are the handcuffs he needs to magic himself free from?

But despite the tensions Ron cannot know plague him, Em is calm. His thoughts, like they always do now, dwell on her. If he goes through with his plans, he’ll be provoking her, whether she realizes it or not.

It’s happening now, whether he likes it or not. The only question is how long he’ll last, and if he’ll hear her laughter break before he does.

Emmett II, Chapter III
Abélia Devillers

“Love is sacrifice—compelled by blood and requited in blood.”
Abélia Devillers

Monday afternoon, 10 September 2007, PM

Emmett: School, again. Somehow smaller and fuller after a night full of color and bright fortunes he stole from somebody else’s cookie. He’s always been the kind of guy people like gossiping to, and he always gives as good as he gets. Give or take a few embellishments.

Classes will take up most of his time—part of the frustrating role he has to play if he doesn’t want shit going sideways on him all at once—but Em, back in his own skin, keeps an ear out for the fallout from last night. He doesn’t give a shit for the exposed brat, but his sudden spate of conscience means that he needs to do something, anything, to remind himself he isn’t all bad.

Because he isn’t. Obviously.

GM: The boys at Brother Martin are talking about the incident with Lee Malveaux, who no one has seen at school today. Rumors variously claim he stuck his hand up Adeline Devillers’ dress, felt her up, or simply had sex with her. Somewhere in there is also a ‘version’ of the story where her breasts fell out of her dress. Most boys are laughing or oggling the thought. They also hear he beat the shit out of Em when he tried to pry Lee off of Adeline?

His audience is eager for details, and wants to know if he banged either of the Devillers himself.
Or both of them. At once. That would be so hot.

Emmett: Not so bad, all considering. Really, why not take credit? Easy enough to play both sides, work with the story—

—that fucking snake.

So he does the—okay, maybe not the right thing, but the less wrong thing.

Sure, he wishes he had gotten lucky, he says. But the truth is simpler, a little more boring. Lee was drunk (not the first time, right?). When the cute freshman turned him down, he got a little handsy—but in this story, Adeline isn’t a victim. She slapped him, he pushed her down, Em tried to help “the little alkie” from starting something he couldn’t finish, and got hit in the face for his trouble (“But, whatever. Dude was throwing a tantrum. I think she slapped him harder than he did me.”).

Ha, yeah, that would be funny if her breasts fell out—but that’s not worth getting excited about, he has a way better story.

GM: Em’s audience eagerly crowds in to hear the rest.

“You banged them, didn’t you? Both at once?” leers one schoolmate.

“Do you have pictures?”

“No, no—did you film it?”

“How the hell would you film that?”

“AV club, stupid.”

Emmett: It almost physically hurts to not start whispers about him having both of them.

Bet I could have done, anyway, a quiet angry thing inside him snips.

But he doesn’t need to be more popular. Instead, Em laments, he had to go home with blue balls after that whole clusterfuck. The sisters weren’t about to seek more male attention after a drunken disaster like Lee.

But speaking of sisters putting out—Charlie Ren, the asian kid in his club, told him he went home with both the Pavaghi girls.

“Not like they have to worry about their family’s reputation, right?” He laughs at the imbecile who brings up filming. “Nasty, bro. But maybe he did. I dunno. He’s a gentleman, won’t tell me much.”

GM: Guffaws go up from the crowd of boys.

“Ren? Seriously?”

“He’s lying. That’s total bullshit.”

“Dunno, I could see it with those girls.”

“Yeah, they’re not prudes like the Devillers.”

“Indian girls are all slutty.”

“They’re not Indian. They’re American.”

“Indians in America.”


“Look, I could see it, just not with Charlie.”

“Pics or it didn’t happen!”

Emmett: “Plus, it’s a cultural thing. They wanted somebody who looked like them. Ren’s Thai, he’s used to that kind of curry smell.”

GM: “What, they shovel curry in their pussies?”

“Tampon curry?”


Emmett: “Bet they called him Chuck, too. Daddy issues…”

He makes sure to pull the bespectacled Asian AV nerd aside, when he sees him. “What’s up, Charlie?”

GM: “Oh, hey, Em!” Ren exclaims, affecting a casual poise. “Oh, just chilling, you know? What’s up with you?”

Emmett: We work with what we’re given.

“That’s cool—so hey, you aren’t gay, right?”

“Not that I have a problem with you if you are,” he adds airily.

GM: “Who said, told you that? I’m not gay!” the glasses-wearing teenager retorts.

Schoolmates in the small crowd around Em start snickering.

Emmett: “Nobody, nobody thinks that. Obviously. Look at you.”

He pulls the younger kid aside after the small crowd disperses and they can be alone.

“Look, Charlie, I’ve always thought you were kind of cool. But you’re quiet, so some assholes were talking shit last week.I felt bad hearing that. Also, just asking again, no shame, you’re straight, right? I wanna make sure I didn’t bend the truth too much when I stuck up for you.”

GM: “You said I was gay in front of all those people!” Charlie angrily gawks.

Emmett: “No, I helped you confirm you weren’t gay in front of all those people,” he corrects.

“Anyway, nobody’s thinking about that now. People think you had a three way with the Pavaghi girls after homecoming. That was the quickest thing I could come up with. End of the week, you’ll be the biggest stallion in school. I just want you to know you’re being watched out for, alright? Relax. You have friends here. You have me.”

Ren’ll believe him. Em’s too good a friend to not have.

GM: The AV nerd’s angry and accusing eyes gradually turn doubting and conflicted as news of the supposed three-way sinks in. They aren’t quite grateful, but Em supposes it’s another testament to his tongue that he’s moved them this far.

“End of the week,” Charlie says slowly.

Emmett: “Steady as a paycheck,” Em swears. “Anyway, it’s not much of an exaggeration. Guy as smart as you definitely could have—its all confidence.” He glances around before saying, “I actually might have a project I want to work on with you, too. That trailer you helped put together for the club showed a lot of talent. You interested in making a movie with me?”

GM: Em’s not sure what it says about Ren’s self-respect when the bespectacled AV nerd eagerly turns to the topic of filmmaking with all the enthusiasm of a cuffed dog that’s now being stroked. Actually, Em is fairly sure what it says about the other teenager’s self-respect, and it’s a relatively consistent ‘saying’ for people their age. Perhaps it even applies to him.

Ren is excited to work on the project, in any case, and inquires what the movie is going to be about.

Emmett: What else are people watching anymore? It’s 2007, and the future is looking bleak.

Everybody wants a love story.

The rest of the day, he just does what he does best. He teases and cajoles, swears and politely refuses to elaborate. He tells the story he needs them to believe, and he does it by not telling them a single thing.
Life is good. Or, it should be.

Monday afternoon, 10 September 2007, PM

GM: Em’s own popularity seems to work against him—or at least against Ren. No one seems to believe the confidence-lacking nerd banged the Pavaghis, and besides, isn’t he gay? They’re far more interested in Em’s sexual exploits and hungry for details about his speculated conquest of the Devillers girls. His silence makes those speculations all the more grandiose. He banged them both, didn’t he? Didn’t he? Why isn’t he bragging? Did he do something too incredible to believe? What the hell did he do?

His fellow students can but speculate as the school day runs by. 4 PM finds him back at the Devillers household. A demure woman dressed like a housekeeper greets him by name and ushers him inside to the living room, where two of Cécilia’s apparent relatives await.

If the Devillers sisters look like distorted reflections of one another, the mother from their family portrait resembles her daughters through a glass darkly. She shares their pale skin, willowy figures, swan-like necks, and delicate, high-cheekboned features. Her eyes are a dark rather pale blue, however, and her hair is deep black rather than light blonde. Her facial features show more age and definition, but she remains a strikingly beautiful woman well into middle age. It’s easy to imagine her as the spitting image of Adeline and Cécilia some twenty years ago. She wears a wide-hemmed navy dress so deep that it seems almost black, and a gold pendant depicting two birds circling stylized flowers. Em’s eyes feel like they could follow its looping patterns forever.

“You must be Elliot,” the woman smiles as she enters the room, extending a hand towards Emmett.
“I’m Cécilia’s and Adeline’s mother, Abélia. My girls have such good things to say about you.”

Emmett: He tears his eyes from the peculiar necklace to her gaze as he smiles widely. “Oh, I hope so. I don’t think I could think of a bad thing to say about them if I tried,” he laughs, taking her hand. “It’s great to meet you. Thanks so much for taking the time—I know you’re super busy. I don’t understand how one person could be involved in so many important things.”

GM: Abélia’s smile widens at the contact. “This is the point at which you shake or kiss it, my dear boy.” The woman’s tone is mirthful, but it doesn’t feel as if she’s making light of Emmett at all.

Emmett: He laughs at himself as he shakes (southern boys don’t kiss hands) and takes a seat. “Well, let’s chalk it up to nerves. I feel out of my depth—you’re a very impressive person.”

GM: Abélia’s gives a light and fluttering laugh as she assumes a seat on a cushioned rocking chair across from Emmett’s couch.

“My girls said you were chivalrous, considerate, and quite a few other qualities, Elliot, but they didn’t mention you were so modest—or had such a knack for making other people feel important. You’ll go far with that, let there be no mistake. It’s so much more precious a skill than simple flattery.”

“As to your earlier remark,” the raven-haired matriarch smiles, “I’m involved in nothing that’s so consequential as properly meeting and thanking the young man who saved my daughter from no small humiliation and embarrassment. Thank you for that, Elliot. It’s so fortunate you were there. It’s almost like someone planned it all, isn’t it?”

She gives another fluttering laugh. “A guardian angel, maybe, who sent you to my daughters in their moment of need.”

Emmett: “That’d make me feel better, actually. It feels strange to have been there, believe me.”

He keeps her gaze. Something about her unnerves him. Why does she look so much like that portrait? A portrait is always a little off. But somehow, she is both unreal and uncomfortably undeniable. He feels like she knows him. And instead of worrying if she’ll like him, he’s just wondering if she’ll let him be, if she might in her unknowable mercy decide to stop paying attention to him.

But no. She’s still here. And her gratitude feels poisonous, simultaneously unreal… and undeniable.

GM: Abélia’s smile widens, lighting all the way up to her dark eyes.

“Oh, I’m so pleased we agree. That would make me feel better too, Emmett—knowing there was a benign higher power taking care of everything behind the scenes. Making sure everything all worked out. It’s almost flattering, in fact, to think that mere mortals such as we might deserve such attentions, isn’t it?”

Emmett: “Okay, so—” he puts his hands up, smiling and trying to turn the scream into a laugh. “I wanted to talk about that, actually—I’m actually glad you know, it makes this so much easier.”


GM: “Know?”

Abélia gives another fluttering laugh.

“Oh, I would presume to know nothing where such spiritual matters are concerned. Perhaps I haven’t been very good at explaining my thoughts. It’s just what you said—it got me thinking. That’s another valuable trait, too, being able to get others to think. It seems as if there is an implicit absolution and forgiveness for one’s sins, in any case, in the notion that a higher force—a guardian angel, if you will—safeguards one’s well-being. Now you might know better here than me, as I’m hardly an expert in scripture, but I can’t think of any parables where an angel safeguards an evildoer from harm—can you? Very few souls seem so privileged as to have a guardian angel.”

Abélia gives another fluttering laugh and a seemingly self-admonishing shake of her head. “It almost feels like committing the sin of pride to say this… but for all the reason one has to be thankful for an angel safeguarding one’s person, it seems as if the real reason to be thankful is for what such an angel’s attentions say as to how God has judged one’s soul.”

“Perhaps I’m waxing esoteric… but my point, Elliot, is that knowing you were there for my daughters at just the right moment… it makes me feel as if a higher force has taken its measure of their souls and judged them worthy. Judged them worth protecting and preserving. Perhaps I’m just being a little, or more than a little, overly emotional—you’re very understanding to listen to me ramble on like this, especially if you’re not religious yourself. But I can’t begin to tell you what a gift your actions last Friday were, or how much joy you’ve brought me.”

The dark-eyed woman’s smile is positively radiant.

“It feels like a truly blessed event for you to have entered my family’s lives, Elliot.”

Emmett: He forces himself to calm down. She’s so hard to read. But act like everything’s fine—it’s never a losing strategy.

“I’ve honestly been blessed too, Ms. Devillers,” he says carefully. “This opportunity is something I would never have dreamed of asking for myself. I’m lucky Cécilia talked me into it. She seems determined I make the most out of things. But I would have been happy just to have made friends with her.”

Let’s see if she knows how happy I make her little girl.

GM: “My dear boy,” Abélia begins in a simultaneously amused and chiding tone, “I’ve birthed and raised six girls. That rather earns a Mrs., wouldn’t you say, even if there is no father in the family picture?”

Emmett: “Of course,” he agrees. “A slip of my tongue. Awfully inconsiderate—I hope you don’t mind my nerves.” His mouth feels dry as she mentions the picture. “Mrs. Devillers.”

Weird, weird lady. Just have to keep lying and she’ll let me be.

Maybe she secretly wants to fuck me. That’s a thing that might happen, right?

GM: Abélia’s smile returns in full.

“It’s so thoughtful of you to draw attention away from my own shortcomings like that, Elliot. Why, here we are, and I haven’t even offered you anything to eat or drink. I’m sure a growing young man like you must be famished after a long day of school. That simply can’t do—what can my housekeeper get for you?”

Emmett: “Some water would be great,” he agrees. “Only if you’re getting something as well, of course. My dad told me never to ask for something if the host isn’t having. A diplomat thing, I suppose. Or maybe just the way he grew up.”

Distract, distract. Has to keep his cool no matter what, control the conversation.

“Can I tell you a secret, Mrs. Devillers?”

GM: Abélia gives another fluttering laugh. “Sage advice, wherever it might be from. Can we have some water, please? And some finger sandwiches, just in case Elliot feels peckish?”

There’s a muted reply from behind the couch. Em feels his gaze drawn to the dark-eyed woman and her ever-present smile.

“There you go again, Elliot, making me feel so important. I don’t know that I’ve earned your trust yet—but I’ll try to be worthy of it.”

She leans in, holding a hand to her ear.

Emmett: “I really like your daughter,” he says, surprised by himself. “Cécilia. She’s clever and has good taste and makes me feel stupid without taking pleasure in it. I hope I don’t make a bad impression by confiding that to you.”

He has to flip her off balance, get her flustered and touched, needs to get to her like she’s gotten to him.

“And I was wondering… well, this is old fashioned of me, I admit. What can I say, I’m a careful person. I don’t like intruding where I’m not wanted. Before I asked her out, I wanted to ask… if not your permission, than your blessing. And I wanted to get that out of the way before we talked about the project. I want to do this right. If there’s a right way to do this.”

Now, smile—okay, golden. You’re golden, kid. I didn’t overdo it, did I? No, not after how she’s been going about tonight. I have this. We have this.

His smile could deflect a nuclear blast.

GM: That’s when a voice shouts in his ear:


Emmett: He jumps, blinking as he turns. His heart’s hammering.

GM: No one is there.

Just air.

Abélia’s gay and fluttering laugh sounds.

Emmett: Well, fuck that noise ten thousand ways from Monday.

“Ha… ha,” he manages. “That’s—impressive. Are you a ventriloquist in addition to everything else?”

Hidden mics? Something else, like one of those whisper corner thingies? What the fuck is this?

GM: “Oh, we Devillers do have a bit of the devil in us!” Abélia chuckles as her laughter subsides. She stares about a foot to Em’s left and coos something in French.

A small toddler peaks out from behind the sofa, grinning up at Em. She’s quite a bit shorter than Yvette or Yvonne, and her young face is pudgy with baby fat, but her milky skin, blue eyes, pale hair, and even the cast to her expression remain eerily similar to her sisters’.

“That’s very flattering of you to presume of me, Elliot, but no—I’m no ventriloquist,” Abélia smiles. “This is Simmone, my youngest. Simmone, can you say hello to our guest?” she asks.

“Hallo,” the small child repeats, looking up at Em almost bashfully.

“I’m so sorry if we gave you a startle—I hope you can find it within yourself to forgive us,” Abélia smiles. “As I said, just a bit of the devil…”

Emmett: Hell. This is what hell feels like. She’s keeping me off balance. Playing me. I don’t know how, but she’s messing with me.

“Of course,” he smiles. “We all need a little devilry in our lives, don’t we?”

Devilry, look at me bringing out the big guns. The big, boring guns.

“You really got me,” he tells the little cherub. The annoying little cherub.

GM: The toddler holds her hands to her mouth and giggles.

Abélia rises from her seat, stoops to the floor, and holds out her arms. Simmone scampers into them, still giggling. Her mother re-assumes her seat with the child on her lap.

“What need have we for angels up above, Elliot, when we’re privileged to enjoy them for a precious few years here on earth?”

“It says something, I think, that children can let in a bit of the devil and still seem to us as perfect little angels. Do you want any yourself, Elliot, or does it feel rather early at this point in your life to say?”

Emmett: “Definitely a little early,” he admits. “But…”

But what? A brat to feed and wipe?

But, it’s one of those things you’re supposed to want, right?

“…maybe when I know I’m ready,” he simply says.

GM: Abélia smiles serenely as the housekeeper arrives with two glasses of water and a platter of finger sandwiches with what looks like ham, lettuce, and tomato.

“Yes. I’m certain you will,” she agrees, plucking up one to feed Simmone. The toddler eats it with that slow, almost exaggerated chew endemic to small children.

“Did you get your start as a filmmaker with home videos, Elliot? I should fancy your parents are very lucky, if that’s the case… all those happy memories preserved by a steady and certain hand.”

Emmett: “I wish I was so industrious,” he says, laughing. “Most of the home movies from back then were of me, not by me. But I don’t mind. I like that I’m starting fresh. Less baggage to weigh me down.”

GM: “Yes, you do strike me as someone who likes to be free, Elliot. Free to fly, free to soar, free to bring his own creative vision to life,” Abélia concurs. “Cécilia had such glowing things to say about that vision, too. Absolutely glowing.” She helps herself to a finger sandwich as Simmone continues to eat.

“Tell me, what sort of movie are you interested in making? Don’t be modest, now. I would love nothing more than to hear the same magic you captivated my eldest with.”

Emmett: “Freedom is something most people want right now,” he says simply. “But freedom is always best when it leads to choice, to commitment that otherwise would never have been realized. That’s a good lead in to the movie—I’ll admit my ideas are bigger than my eyes right now. But I think that if I want to create something real, something that makes sense to people even if they’re my age or decades older, I’ll have to create a movie about love. If you’d be interested in seeing such a thing, of course. Do you enjoy any particular genre of movie, Mrs. Devillers?”

GM: “Love,” Abélia repeats fondly, stroking her still-eating daughter’s hair.

“What more timeless subject is there, save death—and the two are but different faces of the same coin, aren’t they? To live without love is to merely exist—someone far wiser than me made that observation first. You’re right that love is a timeless subject which speaks to people of all ages and backgrounds. Love is to humans as the sun is to a blooming flower. To love is to live.”

She smiles down at her daughter and wipes some crumbs from her mouth with a napkin.

“Now that you’ve gotten me thinking about it, Elliot, I’ve always had a soft spot for dramas that deal with those two topics. Death and love. La Regle Du Ju has always been a favorite of mine—critics make a great deal about it being the French Citizen Kane, and a war film that never mentions or depicts any war, but it could just as easily be described as a love film too. I won’t bore you with any further details if you haven’t seen it—it’s not very well-known here in the States. Tell me more about your film. What sort of love will it explore?”

Emmett: “I haven’t, but now I have a reason to,” he replies brightly.

The anxiety he feels around her provides a kind of creative crucible when she prompts him. He has ideas, but when he pitches them to her, he realizes they aren’t just ideas. They’re anchors, and they’re all that might keep her from carrying him away like a bad tide.

Elliott talks, and as long as he talks, he is real, and if the romantic sap is real, then his ideas must be too. What’s he saying? Does it matter? At a certain point in a conversation, if both people let it, then trains of thought don’t need to be waved and conducted like late arrivals to the middle of nowhere. At a certain point, the words just flow, like water from a split bag or blood from a cut.

And Em feels cut. This woman bothers him, unsettles him like a shadow stretched across too much space.

He talks, and he talks for his life. He talks about what makes a movie matter are the moments, the strange and perfect moments that linger like the sweetest bits of frosting.

He admits to her, frankly, that he doesn’t know what love means to him. If he did, he wouldn’t want to make a movie about it, would he? No, love is interesting because everybody seems to have it at some point, in some way, and yet nobody ever sees it coming. Defining love is tricky—but showing it, exploring it, sharing it through a screen is possible.

So how does one show love without ever using that word, without ever diminishing it with its own imperfect name?

He stops talking for a moment, drawing a long breath. “A lot depends on the audience too, if course. People see love differently—particularly people who have actually experienced it. I’d probably be missing out if I didn’t ask what it means to you, Mrs. Devillers?”

God, I hate talking like this. I actually miss my classmates.

GM: “Love to me means sacrifice, Elliot,” Abélia answers.

“‘Well done is better than well said’, or so it’s said. One must demonstrate one’s love if its object is to benefit from its warmth. Anyone with a knack for speechcraft can turn a pretty phrase or compose a pleasing sonnet.”

Abélia strokes her daughter’s hair, who’s since started on another finger sandwich.

“Such diversions have their place, but they are but springtime gaieties that cannot forestall winter’s encroach. Winter is hard. Winter is cruel. Winter is ineluctable.”

“Warmth is abundant in spring. To love another is to warm them when warmth is scarce and needed most. To love another is to give of one’s self to ease, prevent, or simply share in their pain. To love another is to preserve spring’s happiest day during winter’s bleakest night, even at the cost of one’s dying breath.”

“Love is sacrifice—compelled by blood and requited in blood.”

Perhaps it is Emmett’s imagination that his surroundings seem utterly silent. Birds do not chirp. Cicadas do not buzz. The grandfather clock does not tick.

Then Abélia smiles.

“But you are still young. This simply marvelous film of yours shall explore love’s happiest springtime moments, I imagine, with all the lingering attention one would pay to the sweetest bits of frosting?”

The grandfather clock chimes as Simmone bites into her sandwich.

Emmett: Listening to her is absorbing, oddly enmeshing. He feels almost smothered, and he has to stop himself from starting when finally addressed.

“Well, maybe, but I think that any story about love that only shows the best parts isn’t very interesting. Summer doesn’t mean anything without winter, right?”

He’s getting his steam back, slowly but surely. “If love is about sacrifice, then sacrifice must also be about love. Good times are defined by the bad, but it follows that bad things must be complicated by the good.”

GM: “I think you know about bad things where this topic is concerned, Elliot, even young as you are. You don’t believe you’ve known love, do you?” Abélia inquires.

Emmett: He pauses. “I would never pretend to know love like somebody older and more experienced, ma’am. I wouldn’t say I haven’t known any kind of love, though. It might be childish and weak, or I suppose cute depending on how you look at it—but love isn’t one size fits all, is it?”

GM: “Heavens no. Simmone, what do you believe love is?” Abélia asks.

“You’re love,” answers the toddler.

Abélia gives a fluttering laugh and strokes her daughter’s hair.

Simmone tugs at the front of her mother’s dress.

“I’m thirsty.”

“Patience just a moment, mon tendre, for our guest.” Abélia’s smile turns towards Emmett. “Would you be comfortable if I breastfed her? We are in America, so I completely understand if you aren’t—it’d be no trouble to warm some milk from the fridge.”

Emmett: Of course this would happen to me. Is this karma?

“It’s your home before my country,” he says, laughing (not too eager, dammit). “I can go wash up myself, if you’d feel more comfortable.”

GM: Abélia only laughs and replies, “Oh, that Southern hospitality.” She obliges this time when Simmone tugs at her dress and undoes several buttons. Emmett seems some cleavage and a flash of nipple past the toddler’s head as she zeros in.

“Thank you for being so understanding, Emmett,” Abélia beams. “I might just be imagining things, but it was some of the language you used earlier, that I suppose made it sound like love was a foreign thing to you.”

Soft sucking sounds go up as Simmone’s head faintly bobs.

Emmett: He smiles tightly. “Love always feels foreign when it isn’t right in your face, doesn’t it? When you don’t have it, you can’t imagine one day feeling it again.”

He tilts his head, and makes himself meet her eyes despite the bizarre scene. “Ma’am, I don’t know what you think of me. I’d like to discuss that openly, though. Why do you keep calling me Emmett?”

Bluff. Bluff this bitch back to Paris or wherever the fuck she came from.

He doesn’t know what game she’s playing, but he wants to beat her at it.

GM: Another fluttering laugh sounds as the raven-haired woman strokes Simmone’s hair.

“Why, it’s your name, my dear boy. You’ve been very charming, but you’ve seemed so tense… you haven’t touched your water or sandwiches. It’s a relief to bare one’s self before others and be accepted for who one is, wouldn’t you agree?”

Emmett: He laughs a little, taking a sip. “Well, I wanted so badly to impress you. But when I’m in this house, I am Elliott. Sometimes a new name is as freeing as any other thing—and if it’s not too much of a burden, I would like very much to remain Elliott for the time being. He suits me, really, like a good coat or a pair of shoes. I am lightened by carrying him. I am more myself than me.” He regards her carefully. “You seem to understand that, though. Wearing masks.”

Big gamble, here. If the game is up, the game is up. But if it isn’t…

“I think you understand that very well, actually. In as much as I would presume to know anything about that, Mrs. Devillers.”

GM: Mirth seems to dance in Abélia’s dark eyes.

“Continue, my dear boy.”

Low suckles continue to sound from the toddler at her breast.

Emmett: “I’m very good at reading people,” he says carefully. “And I confess, Mrs. Devillers, you have me at a disadvantage. I wasn’t expecting to hear that name, and certainly it threw me off balance. It would make sense if I looked at you and was unsure of what I saw. If I was second-guessing myself at all the little jumps and hops a face makes.”

He reaches for a sandwich, takes a bite, chews.

You’re on a tightrope, El. Keep. Walking.

“But,” he says after swallowing, “I’m not confused when I look at you. I know what I see, and it’s nothing. You can’t read anything behind a mask. Which I can appreciate. For obvious reasons.”

He glances at the sandwich in his hands. “These are very good, thank you.”

GM: The sandwich is slightly tough ciabatta bread with a softer prosciutto ham, cambozola and brie cheese, and roasted tomato interior. Artichoke pesto, basil, walnut oil, champagne vinegar, and mustard round out the flavor with some sharpness.

Emmett: One day, I’ll be rich enough to have appetizers on command, too.

GM: “You’re welcome, my dear. I’m so glad to see you enjoying them. They’re a recipe from back home, and always a hit with guests,” Abélia smiles, taking a dainty bite from a second sandwich.

“Openness brings so much more joy to everything, doesn’t it? Perhaps it’s presumptive of me, but I wonder if you might even explore those concepts in your film—masks and openness. It’s such timeless advice to write what one knows.”

Emmett: “Surely no more presumptuous than I’ve been,” he protests lightly. “And advice I’ll heed, likely.” He considers her a moment longer.

“I have to be getting home, eventually. I wonder whether you’ll be discussing Emmett with Cécilia—I don’t think he needs to come into anything just yet. I understand if your perspective is different, of course.”

Yeah, I’m so understanding if you decide to squish me under your heel like a bit of fallen sandwich. And fuck me, how thirsty is the little tyke?

GM: A steady suckling continues to sound from the child at Abélia’s breast.

“Would you ask me to omit the truth to my own daughters? A lie by omission is still a lie, Elliot,” the dark-eyed woman chides, stroking her daughter’s hair.

Emmett: “What truth?” he says simply. “Life is what we make of it. I am Elliott here, I am Elliott with her. Are you so concerned with things that she will never be exposed to? An illusion is not an illusion if it is perfect; I forget who said that, but I quite like it. I would never presume to ask you for anything you could not give, Mrs. Devillers. But it seems as though you would not have met with me today were you not at least intrigued by my character.” He smiles slightly at his own double entendre. “I want to be the best man I can be, ma’am. And Elliott Faustin is that man. Do you disagree?”

He can feel the bomb ticking as he looks into her eyes. No fear. No doubt.

Confidence. That’s all he has left, so he milks it and oozes it and bleeds it.

All he has left.

Not least because of the newspaper wrapped bundle he’d given Lena yesterday. Fancy overnight shipping. It’s a birthday message for a friend, he’d said. Had to be recorded way in advance, that was part of the gag. If she would pop it in a post box on the date there (about a month and change from now), he’d be soooo grateful. Best sister ever.

The truth was, he couldn’t trust himself to send it. A week or so after Halloween Cécilia’d get it, and learn about a very nasty trick played on her.

And also an apology. He’d even cried. Oh, it had been hard not to edit that one out. He’d come clean about everything, even encouraging Westley to “go for it” with Adeline (though he didn’t go into detail there—no need to shoot himself in the head while he was digging his own grave).

The only thing that wasn’t in there was his name. And he needed this rich, peculiar bitch to let go of that.

He stayed up all last night, wondering what he’d done. But that’s done, and this is now. His conscience is clear, even as it warps in two. He’s played all his cards.

And all that’s left is the confidence.

GM: Abélia gives a fluttering laugh as she strokes her suckling daughter’s hair.

“My, my, my. You are a bewitching young man, aren’t you, Elliot? I rather fancy no one should care a whit as to the difference between truth and illusion after listening to you speak.”

“This settles it, of course, that you’re going to make the film. Some might say art is little but convincing the viewer of the artist’s illusion.”

“Perhaps we are of a like mind in our beliefs. Truth and illusion are grand and deeply complex ideas deliberated at length by enlightened minds. I am no theologian. I am no philosopher. I am but a humble mother, whose heart only desires what is best for her daughters.”

“Emmett Delacroix, son of Philémon Delacroix, shall be revealed for who he is—in due time.”

A smile returns to Abélia’s face as she looks up from the still-nursing Simmone.

“For now, he has a film to make. He’ll be a perfect gentleman to my Cécilia, of course.”

Emmett could have sworn he was sitting too far away for Abélia’s fingers to brush across his cheek, but they do. An almost rippling shudder courses through his skin, as if his very flesh seeks to flee the ’woman’s’ touch.

“He is, after all, so very talented in selling illusions.” Mirth dances in her dark eyes. “Why, I rather fancy that one would have sold any human…”

Simmone smiles up at Em.

The milk staining her mouth, and her mother’s bared nipple, is black as pitch.

“Would you care for a dessert sandwich, Elliot, if you’ve had enough ham and cheese?” Abélia smiles. “We have nutella.”

Emmett: He opens his mouth, considers screaming.

Then he just turns. He just turns and fucking runs.

He doesn’t think, or talk, or do a single damn thing. Except run.

There’s no grandness to it or any kind of flourish. No rationalization or argument from his ADD-riddled mind. Every part of him is in agreement.


GM: The house’s front door slams shut behind him. Perhaps was the one to close it. He can hope. The keys to his car’s ignition cannot be turned on fast enough, but pulling them from his pocket and fitting them in seems to take a thousand years. The tall white house races past the rearview mirror as he burns rubber.

High, fluttering laughter still rings in his ears.

Monday evening, 10 September 2007, PM

GM: Going home and getting stoned in his room helps Em, a little. But mostly it doesn’t. Googling “black breastmilk” turns up results for minocycline therapy. That seems to be associated with acne, which doesn’t seem at all associated with any of the Devillers’ milk-smooth complexions.

Rain starts to fall after he gets home. It’s a moderately breezy evening out. As the sun dies and passes into night, every rustle of wind through the trees seems to carry Abélia’s high and fluttering laughter.

Emmett: Bullshit. That’s all it is. She’s messing with him. She’s obviously, clearly playing with him. That’s what people like her do.

“I fancy any human…”

Bullshit. Right?

“Fuck,” he mutters, taking another absentminded hit. He needs to tell somebody about this. He can’t handle it all by himself. A partner in crime, that’s what he needs.

GM: And people for his film. Mrs. Devillers said it was “settled”. He was going to make one.

Emmett: Settled. Like the game was over.

His hand tightens into a fist.

He might not be a good son. He might not deserve the things he has, the baubles and trinkets, the benefit of the doubt that he keeps pulling on like a tape measure that never reaches its full length. Yes, he might be an asshole; Westley has that much right, even if the others haven’t caught on yet. But if there’s one thing Emmett Delacroix despises more than himself, it’s everybody else.

“You want a movie, you vicious French cunt?” he whispers to the laughing night. “I’m going to give you one nobody will ever forget.”

Emmett II, Chapter II
Ice Cream

“Some people can’t be ’appy. They just want to piss on everything.”
Yvette Devillers

Friday evening, 7 September 2007

GM: The Walter Grinnan Robinson House is one of the most beautiful homes in New Orleans. Located at 1415 Third Street in the exclusive Garden District, the palatial Antebellum mansion incorporates a sophisticated blend of Greek Revival and Italianate styles with a Neoclassical cast iron fence adorned in delicate shell motifs. It feels like a throwback to an earlier age of opulence. It’s far from the only multimillion house in the historic neighborhood to feel that way.

Viewed from the street, the house presents an impressive sight. It’s far back on the lot, sideways to the street, with a Palladian carriage house and iron gates. The impressive scale of the house results from its two nearly 16-foot stories of equal height. Double galleries with curved ends, an essential feature of Garden District homes, adorn the façade. These feature Doric columns on the first floor and Corinthian on the second. Cast iron panels in a somewhat heavier than normal pattern link the columns and blend well with the feeling of solidity which the building gives. The southern exposure has double galleries framed in ironwork of a lacy design, which effectively lightens and gives delicacy to the whole of the building.

The snow-white mansion is also one of the largest properties in the city, covering close to 14,000 square feet if one also includes the 1,500 square foot carriage house that likely served as servant quarters when the house was first built.

The exterior grounds have a beautiful pool. Outdoor features include multiple balconies/porches, a Neoclassical fountain, and formal gardens with weeping willows, palm trees, and vibrant flowerbeds of roses, violets, magnolias, and other sweet-smelling blossoms. Neatly-trimmed green hedges and a wrought-iron fence make the home’s privacy tastefully but abundantly clear. Access in is controlled through an intercom by the gate.

It smells like old money.

It smells like a lot of money.

Emmett: Money that might otherwise prove incredibly distracting to El, if only the adolescent trickster wasn’t far more invested in another kind of prize entirely. He’s set for money right now anyway —the way he sees it, any expenses beyond snacks, gas, and weed are basically unheard of.

GM: The house’s entry hall is equally stately affair. A sweeping staircase underneath a crystal chandelier leads up to the second floor. Cécilia presses an intercom and says something in French that Emmett doesn’t understand. Excited-sounding replies in young girls’ voices sound back in the same language.

“Letting my sisters know we’re home,” Cécilia explains as Adeline heads upstairs, with the declared intent to change.

“How’s your eye doing?” she asks as she slips off her shoes and starts down one of the hallways, motioning for Em to follow. “Can I get you some ibuprofen?”

Emmett: “It’s fine, seriously. You don’t need to get me anything. Except for whatever you’re having.” He follows after her, hands in his pockets, content to let her take the lead for the time being.

GM: Cécilia stops. “You’re sure? Not even an ice pack?”

Emmett: He pokes it. “Looks worse than it is, really. I don’t think it’s bad to let it air. Not that I’m basing that on my extensive medical knowledge.”

GM: “If you’re sure, El,” Cécilia says, eying the bruise before smiling again. “But since we’re already headed to the kitchen, I hope you’ll at least let me get you something to eat or drink.”

Emmett: “Like I said—whatever you’re having.”

GM: Cécilia nods and starts off down the hallway again. “I’ll pour us some Côte Rôtie. It should help Adeline and the others sleep, too.”

Emmett: That’s a good sign.

That’s a very good sign.

He doesn’t have to fake any of the slightly shakey good humor he’s radiating now. He might be mature in some ways and extremely undeveloped in others, but the part of him that’s a seventeen-year-old boy is right on the money.

GM: It’s as he’s giddying over the prospect of wine to loosen Cécilia’s ambitions that Emmett passes a portrait of what looks like his intended conquest and her younger sister, give or take a few years younger. Two small girls around grade school age stand in front of them, along with a younger toddler. All five children share the same slender builds, pale blonde hair, milky complexions, and pale blue eyes. The already striking resemblance is made all the more pronounced by their identical attire—sleeveless white dresses of a silky material.

It’s the final figure, however, who most dominates the family portrait.

She resembles the five girls as though viewed through a glass darkly. She’s somewhere around middle age, with raven hair and a deep black dress that strikingly contrast the young girls’ lighter hair and garb—an effect that is all the more pronounced by how her facial features are otherwise the spitting image of theirs (give or take enough decades). She holds a sleeping infant in her left hand and rests her right upon Cécilia’s shoulder. The three’s positions recall a grand and unifying circle of life: infant to youth, youth to mother. Although the woman remains in the foreground, her taller height and black gown’s wide hem give her an almost looming presence that seems to all but swallow up the five children into her dark folds.

The still woman’s smile rests upon Emmett knowingly.

Emmett: Not something you see everyday, he finds himself admitting. He doesn’t like art, really—though he feels pretty sure he can talk a good game as Elliott— but he finds himself staring regardless.

“Beautiful portrait,” he hears himself muse, almost unconsciously.

GM: Perhaps it’s as a result of that distractedly fixated mental state while his teenage libido also wants sex. Maybe it’s the prospect of more wine after he’s already had more than a few splashes of Artie’s booze. Maybe it’s the eye Westley punched.

But Em could swear it looked as if the woman in the portrait just winked.

Emmett: Em’s all kinds of squeamish. He doesn’t like people hugging him suddenly, cleans his hands whenever he gets the chance—and there are feelings he hates, too. Feelings that bother him like nails ripping into a chalkboard.

The feeling of a secret he knows he doesn’t know. The feeling of being watched when he’s alone.

The feeling of being tricked.

It shouldn’t, he hates that it is, but it’s happening; getting to him. Something wrong, something dark—

“—who made it?” he stammers, his somewhat dark face paling. “Who painted this thing?”

GM: Cécilia looks back at El. Perhaps she’s about to ask whether he likes the portrait, or make some other appropriate small talk. But she doesn’t.

“It was by a family friend,” she answers, as if to reassure him. “Well, more like friend of a family friend. I think it actually took a lot out of her, in some ways; her normal style is…”

Cécilia looks at her houseguest for a moment longer.

“Are you sure you couldn’t use some ice or ibuprofen, El?”

Emmett: “I said I’m fine,” he almost snaps, before stammering, “I’m sorry, it just—where’s the bathroom?”

He can hear the deafening silence of the moment, but he can’t even let himself feel embarrassed. Has to wash his face. Has to think.

GM: Cécilia looks a bit concerned, but gives Em directions while she goes to pour the wine. He doesn’t hear much else of what she says. He can’t get to that door fast enough. The bathroom is clean, white, and has more floor space than Em’s room back home. There’s room for a rug, small potted tree, and two vases of fresh-smelling flowers by the basin-like sink.

Emmett: He barely notices it. The room feels dreamlike. No, nightmarish.

“Calm down, calm down..”

But he can’t. What the fuck is he doing? This isn’t selling oregano to freshmen or faking letters from his teachers. This is fucking with lives, rich, smart lives. And okay, sure, he doesn’t really care about bratty Addie—but he didn’t mean for Lee to make her a casualty of 80’s slapstick. What if he fucks up? What if he’s already fucked up? All he needs is for the wrong person to take Lee seriously, or for Cici to start wondering about some of the stories he told her.

His cheeks are burning for some reason. Holy shit, is he crying? He is. He can see himself in the mirror, tears washing his cheeks of sweat.

He has a sudden, inexplicable urge to call his mom. She’s crankier towards him, these days, but maybe she can calm him down. She always could. ADD, the white-coats and quacks said, and they hadn’t been wrong, but she was the one who understood. She understands him, how he can get.

He hates that. He hates that she knows him so well.

Pull yourself together.

But she winked at him. Hadn’t she winked at him?

He watches himself in the mirror, for one minute, than another.

GM: His reflection watches him back. ‘Elliot’ looks like the stress is getting to him. Confidence is the first thing a conman needs. It’s in the name. Conman. Con games. Confidence games.

Pull yourself together.

She couldn’t have winked at him.

Could she?

Emmett: He isn’t sure how many minutes pass before he steps from the bathroom, breath rattling. Control. He needs control of the situation. He needs to find Cécilia.

GM: He runs into a grade school-age girl who looks like a miniature version of Cécilia. She’s standing just outside the door. Like she’s been waiting.

“Cécilia said you’d be in the bathroom,” the child says.

Emmett: “Oh,” he says. “I was.”

He summons Elliott’s ghost and says, “Nice to meet you. You’ll be Yvette or Yvonne, right?”

GM: “Your jacket’s funny,” the child states without answering his question.

Emmett: Funnier than the Adams Family routine.

“Funny how?” Em—El—asks, hiding his annoyance behind his puzzlement.

GM: “It’s got a label,” says the girl. “For ’ow big it is.”

She looks at him like the conclusion is the most obvious thing in the world.

Emmett: He actually chuckles, his contempt for the brat bringing back his mojo. Lucky he knew what he was getting into tonight.

“Yeah, I hear off-the-rack stuff is tacky. Mom gives me a lot of guff about it, but my father always says that the idea that clothes make a man is bull—ah, sorry. Forgot who I was talking to.”

He smiles at the little shithead. “The truth is, if you carry yourself like the person you know you are, people treat you properly. Doesn’t matter if you’re wearing rags or or thrifting.”

He drops slightly, making eye contact with the shrimp. As he does, he subtly draws her eyes to the glittering watch he borrowed from Barty Stines Friday. It isn’t like Em didn’t pay for it. Helping that dude make friends was like getting pandas to fuck. He also adjusts the silk tie around his neck, also borrowed.

“Hope I didn’t weird you out. I bet your mom does all your shopping for you. I’m Elliott, by the way.”

And I’m going to fuck your sister.

GM: The little girl’s eyes pass over El’s tie and not-quite Rolex. They don’t look impressed so much as less hostile. She gives a rather flat look at his last statement. “Maman ’as people do that for ’er. She ’as way more important stuff to do.”

She then adds, “Ah’m Yvette.”

Emmett: “Nice to meet you, Yvette. And that makes sense.”

If I were your mother, I’d want to avoid taking my failed abortion shopping too.

“You know, Cécilia didn’t mention you were so observant. You’re nine, right? You seem much older. Dignified.”

He knows her type. He almost is her type, not that he’d admit it. Spoiled rotten and self-important shitheel. But the thing about spoiled people is they like their lives to be easy. And what’s easier than believing people like you?

GM: Yvette bobs her head at El’s question about her age. “Nine and one-sixth.”

Emmett: “I’m definitely wasn’t very clever at your age,” he goes on. “Lived all day in my own head, couldn’t stop daydreaming. Cécilia says you’re a wonderful sister, though.”

GM: Yvette smiles a bit at her older sister’s mention. “So’s Cécilia. She’s the best sister ever.”

Emmett: “Even better than you are to her?” he asks, smiling.

GM: The child laughs. “D’accord. Maybe not that much better. But reeeeeeaally close.”

Emmett: “If you wanna even the scores a bit, you might wanna see if you can keep Adeline company. She had a bit of a tough night, and I think Cécilia’s still worried about her.” He pauses. “Can I trust you to keep a secret for me? You seem pretty cool.”

She definitely can’t, but he bets she’ll say she will anyway.

GM: “Ah keep tons of secrets!” Yvette nods eagerly, leaning in.

Emmett: Jesus, it’s actually like taking candy from a baby. A French baby that hates candy. They’re more about pastries, anyway.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody as good as her,” he says quietly.

That’s right, she’s mother Teresa with a better figure.

“I really want to make her as happy as she makes everybody else, as cheesy as that might sound.” He looks around conspiratorially. “I could really use the help of people who love her.”

GM: “Welllll,” Yvette says thoughtfully, then frowns a bit, “you should ’ave more money. And wear a better jacket.”

Emmett: He laughs. “Working on it.”

GM: Yvette nods several times as if to say she expects that El is, then asks, “Do you know French? French makes ‘er ’appy. We only talk in English when there’s people over.”

Emmett: “Enough to learn more,” he replies happily. “Well, it’s been very nice talking to you.”

You might literally be the worst human being I know.

“I’ll remember this—oh, and Yvette?”

GM: “Uh-huh?” Yvette asks.

Emmett: “She’s lucky to have sister like you,” he says warmly.

GM: The girl smiles. “Maman says there’s nothing in the world better than sisters. The ’ole world.”

Emmett: Except that blond guy’s dick she keeps hopping on. Like a fucking pogo.

Date ?

Emmett: Emmett’s grin widens at Yvette. He may be sitting in a wheelchair, missing his legs, missing a life, and slated for execution. But…

“You were so proud to be nine and what was it, one sixth? Maybe you’d remember me if I told you…” he composes his face, warms his voice like butter on toast.

“She’s lucky to have a sister like you.”

He winks.

Friday evening, 7 September 2007

GM: Perhaps to his chagrin, the 17-year-old El finds that he isn’t rid of Yvette so easily. She follows him back to the kitchen with her sister, whose arms she jumps into with an exclaimed, “Cécilia!” The older Devillers laughs and spins her around before setting her down with a, “Vous devenez un peu gros…” that Em doesn’t understand.

Adeline is also there, changed into a fluffy sweater and pajama bottoms that don’t look likely to fall down as easily. She thanks him for his jacket as she hands it back. There’s also another little girl in a nightgown with nigh-identical features to Yvette who the sisters introduce as Yvonne.

Emmett: He’s not a bad sport about the sisters speaking amongst themselves in French, though he doesn’t presume to act like he belongs, either. Just smiles at the happy family like something in him isn’t screaming. He’s always wanted a twin.

He assures Adeline it was really no problem.

He’s more subdued than earlier. He can make nice with the brats, but he has plans for Cécilia.

GM: Cécilia gently chides her sisters not to speak too much French since they “have company over”. She pours wine for all of them, too, the nine-year-olds included. If El remarks on that fact, the siblings just laugh lightly that it’s “really not a big deal in France”. They’re used to explaining this to their American friends.

Everyone drinks a little wine “back home”. Kids don’t get in nearly so much trouble for drinking. It just isn’t as big a deal to anyone.

“Americans get mad about the dumbest stuff,” Yvette opines.

Emmett: “Tough to argue,” he agrees, sipping his own glass. “But we also break our own rules more often than not. Makes life interesting.”

GM: “Ah thinks it’s better to just set rules people won’t break as much, no?” Adeline asks over a sip of her own. “Everyone gets along better that way.”

Emmett: “You’re probably right,” he concedes. “It simply makes sense to me as a native. Things in this country, laws and companies and even the different kinds of people aren’t meant to work together well. Bit like NOLA, really. A city like this doesn’t exist without somebody breaking a few rules. They might not be made to be broken, but some lines have to be crossed before they can be drawn.” He shrugs. “But I wouldn’t take the word of an American.”

That was clever. Maybe she’s rubbing off on me.

GM: “That’s true,” Cécilia nods, thoughtfully swishing her glass. “There’s an inherent appeal to people in transgression. Even back home—the historical stereotype is we’re always having revolutions, aren’t we? People will always want rules to break, to assert themselves and show they have agency.”

“Ah think that’s because they’re un’appy,” Adeline poses. “Every revolution back ’ome ’ad major causes. People will always want to make things better for themselves bah breaking the rules.”

“What if we could get everyone to a point they were happy?” Cécilia poses thoughtfully.

“You can’t do that,” Yvette laughs.

Yvonne nods with her sister, if more sadly. “People are always going to be un’appy.”

“You’re right,” Cécilia smiles at them, “I should have been more specific. Think about the question on a smaller scale. Have you ever been tempted to break any of Maman’s rules?” She winks conspiratorially, “It’s all right to say so, she isn’t home.”

El could swear there’s an invisible cord connecting the three sisters’ heads as they simultaneously shake them.

Cécilia looks unsurprised by that response as she continues, “There are plenty of historic and recent thinkers and politicians who consider the family the nucleus of society. If we’ve achieved happiness here,” she gestures across the kitchen, “how can we replicate that on a larger scale?”

“That’s what you and Maman do,” Yvonne speaks up. “Make things better for people, so they can be as ’appy as us.”

“And ‘appy people don’t want to break so many rules,” Adeline nods. “Bread and circuses, if we’re being cynical. But Ah don’t think it’s a coincidence, either, what El says. This city’s ‘ole mystique is ’ow people ’ere can break so many rules. But it’s also one of the un’appiest in the country. Astronomique rates of poverty, illiteracy, incarceration, and so many other ills. People ’ave a lot of reasons to want to break the rules ’ere.”

Emmett: Jesus, listen to them.

He affects a thoughtful and interested expression, though.

“Is it always so bad, the breaking of a rule in the first place? I mean, whether or not you actually sympathize with them. I’m not even talking about obvious examples, intermarriage and freedom fighters or whatever. I mean rulebreakers, one and all. When you remove the cautionary tales and sob stories, what’s left?”

GM: “Ah’d say that still really comes down to what the rule is and why they’re breaking it,” Adeline considers.

Cécilia nods. “I think the question is whether they want to break the rules because they’re trying to bring about real and substantive change, or just for its own sake.”

MLK vs. the rebel without a cause,” Adeline raises.

Cécilia sips from her glass. “Exactly. Now, sometimes a rebel wants to feel independent and is maybe frustrated they can’t find any other outlet to express that through. At best, someone can help them find one. At worst, they’re being childish and lashing out for the sake of lashing out.”

“It’s easy for the rebels without a cause to pretend to be MLKs, too,” Adeline adds.

“They should just be happy,” Yvonne speaks up. “If they were, they wouldn’t be rebels.”

Cécilia smiles and strokes her sister’s hair. “Making things better for people does seem to be the answer to both types.”

Emmett: “Interesting word to use,” he says to Cécilia, smiling indulgently but ignoring the slightly racist implication and Yvonne’s gabbing, “Childish. People like describing rebels that way.”

GM: “They do,” Adeline agrees. “Partly because it ’as real basis for the ones without a cause, and also to put down the ones ’oo do. Police called MLK an agitator, a troublemaker. They trahed to make it seem like ’e was just stirring trouble instead of trahing to make things better.”

Emmett: Em sips his wine slowly. “So what separates the good children from the bad? Actually, does it even matter? They’re still children. Still just trying to understand things the best they can, and do everything they can to make their dreams come to life. All anybody’s trying to do, really. They might be doing it wrong, might be hurting more than they help—but they’re children. Hard to hold it against them.”

He isn’t drunk, but he feels strange. Invested, even though he could have sworn a few minutes ago he doesn’t actually care.

“Children are children. You can punish them, or reward them, or ask them nicely not to do it again. But ultimately the only one who decides how they act is them. And people are just children with more details.”

He tilts his head, then chuckles. “Unless I’m just being childish, of course.”

GM: Cécilia smiles at that. “I don’t think you are, El. I think you also raise another point that’s worth considering—the rebels’, and childrens’, perspectives. It’s true we’ve been talking a lot about them and presuming to make decisions for them. But what do the children here think?”

She looks back over her youngest sisters.

“Maman’s rules are all good,” says Yvonne. “Ah think everyone should just try to be ‘appy. That’s what everyone wants, to be ’appy.”

“Some people can’t be ’appy,” says Yvette. “They just want to piss on everything.”

“What do you think we should do about those people?” Cécilia asks.

“Get rid of them,” Yvette answers.

“We ’ave a Robespierre in the making,” Adeline laughs.

Emmett: Genocidal undertones from the brat. That’ll age well.

God, this is good wine.

GM: Yvette smiles and sips hers.

Emmett: He continues making conversation and making a good impression—joking, contemplating, and keeping the good humor—but he’s not trying to drag out he conversation.

He’s not here for them.

GM: The sisters stay up for some time longer drinking wine and talking about rebels. The general consensus seems to be that whether they are genuine activists or rebels without causes, the solution is to make people happier and remove the cause for their discontent.

Yvette believes the ones who still can’t be happy should go to jail. Cécilia and Adeline bring up the subjects of mass incarceration and prison reform in America, but don’t dwell on them overlong. Yvonne gets some dairy-free macarons that everyone shares and washes down with their wine. Yvette spreads some homemade nutella that comes in a glass jar over hers.

Emmett: Well, even the Hitler Youth could nail a good hairstyle once in a while. It does taste good, though. He tries some.

GM: Cécilia assents to the “midnight snack” but gets out a small spread of dairy-free cheeses, grapes, and crackers she asks her youngest sisters to have before the macarons.

Em finds the homemade nutella to be thicker and slightly sweeter than the store-bought variety. It’s different.

Cécilia eventually ushers her sisters upstairs to brush their teeth and tuck them in. Adeline declares she’s turning in for the night too. When Cécilia comes back downstairs, she says she can call a taxi for El or have the family chauffeur drop him off at his house, unless there’s anyone else he wants to call for a ride.

Emmett: He tries to make himself helpful, at least by making the ushering and dismissal more fun.

“My mom’s actually at an out of town thing, so I can stay a bit longer,” he says to Cécilia. He smiles slightly as he taps the bottle of wine that’s still out. “Wanna be children?”

GM: “Oh?” Cécilia asks, curious.

Emmett: He nods. “It’s great hearing about your opinions on rebellion, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes you need to practice something to learn about it, and I’d much rather hear you talk about yourself. Maybe even play a game. Only if you want to, of course.” He’ll move to pour her a glass, if she seems interested.

GM: Cécilia offers a droll smile. “To be honest, El, there’s not much room in my life to be rebellious. All of my family counts on me.”

She sits down as if that settles the matter, then thoughtfully remarks, “But I would like to hear more about you. We’ve spent this whole evening talking about me, my family, and things that matter to us. What matters to you?”

Emmett: “There’s always room for rebellion. Even in the small things.” He pours a glass of wine, offers it to her along with the rest of him. “But what matters to me… honestly, I’m a big believer in games. Play, rather. I think people can learn a lot by having fun together. Ever played truth or drink?”

The guilty grin on his face lends a kind of maturity to the otherwise juvenile prompt.

GM: Cécilia grins back. “I don’t think you’re allowed to be a teenage girl if you haven’t.”

Emmett: “Yet another way you haven’t rebelled.”

GM: “Good point. I could do that here, and we could have only you play?”

Cécilia doesn’t stop him from pouring, but doesn’t move to drink yet.

Emmett: He actually laughs at that, surprised at the wittiness.

She’s got some fun in her, all right.

“We can start that way. I don’t mind. Maybe we’ll switch when you feel guilty for uncovering all my deepest secrets. Ask away. Don’t go too easy. It’s not fun if it’s all talk and no forfeit.”

GM: “Okay, we’ll have me rebel here then,” Cécilia smiles, tracing a hand along the wine bottle as if to say she soon expects to be pouring El a refill.

“Let’s start with one easy secret, though. What do you want to study in college?”

Emmett: He actually doesn’t have to lie here. “Honestly, I have no idea. I like the idea of film school, or something with the entertainment industry. Something that makes people happy. Or happier than they are. Parents wish I had more concrete goals, but what can I do? Pretend to want something I don’t?”

The irony of his last sentence is utterly lost on him. Luckily, on Cécilia as well.

Some part of him also knows dropping the film tidbit is dangerous, almost compromising. But the rest of him doesn’t care. What’s a game without a risk?

GM: “Going to film school still sounds like a pretty concrete goal,” Cécilia nods. “Are you just not sure if that’s what you really want?”

Emmett: “Basically,” he agrees. “I mean, it’s not even a goal. Just an idea. I have no idea what I want from myself.” The honesty surprises him into a small silence. “See, you’ve already gotten me thinking. This should be fun.”

GM: “Have you thought about going anyways, and seeing how things turn out?” Cécilia asks. “If it doesn’t feel right, you could always stop.”

Emmett: “Could I? The truth is once I decide I want to do something, really decide I want it, I’m not good at letting it go even if I can’t have it. I might fail, I might even give up, but I could never do something else instead, if that’s where I decided I needed to be.”

GM: “So you only want to start something once you’re completely sure it’s right for you, because you’d want to finish it,” Cécilia nods.

Emmett: “That’s the nice way of putting it. Maybe I’m just bad at letting go of things I don’t deserve.”

GM: “You don’t think you deserve to go to film school?”

Emmett: That’s not what I said. Is it?

There’s a thought he doesn’t need right now. He simply smiles at her, and drinks.

GM: Cécilia looks at him thoughtfully, then says, “Your turn, now. I’ve asked enough questions to get you drinking.”

Emmett: “Sure. I can start easy too.” He thinks for a moment before chuckling. “What was the embarrassing moment I didn’t get to hear in the car?”

GM: Cécilia only smiles at that and takes a drink from her glass.

“Was there a time when you thought you did deserve to go to film school?”

Emmett: Called it, masturbating in the shower.

“I don’t know,” he replies. “I hadn’t thought about it like that until you’d pointed it out. But I guess…” he pauses. “I’ve felt too lucky for a long time, now. Like I don’t belong in the life I’ve landed in, and everything I have is on borrowed time before people realize I shouldn’t have any of it.”

That’s good. People dig the tortured privileged kid. Especially when she’s probably the same, on same level.

He goes on the offensive. “I owe you a good question, if you won’t take that one. What would you change about your life, if you could?”

GM: Cécilia’s face retains that same thoughtful look at El’s answer, but there’s an almost sad cast to it now too. She doesn’t say anything to his question for a little while. Perhaps she’s thinking about it, or perhaps his answer.

Finally she says, “This may seem like a cop-out answer, and maybe even insensitive after yours, but I don’t think there’s anything I’d change about my life. It’s not perfect—Westley wouldn’t have ‘asked’ Adeline to dance if it was—but I really can’t think of anything else I’d want to change about it.”

Emmett: His first instinct says bullshit. Everybody’s unhappy. All people are missing something. That’s the only thing that makes sense.

But she’s not lying—at least, if she is, she’s way the hell beyond him. He’s good at reading people when he wants to be.

The look of doubt, then utter surprise as he realizes she’s telling the truth, all pass over his face quickly.

“It’s not insensitive,” he reassures her after a moment. “Just… surprising. I’m pretty lucky, and I know there are things I’d change about mine.”

He tilts his head. “I’ll ask you another, instead. What’s your relationship like with your mom?”

GM: “You already asked me one. No takebacks,” Cécilia answers teasingly. “But I’ll let you ask another for a drink.”

Emmett: He laughs and obliges.

GM: “As for Maman…” Cécilia says contemplatively. “She’s everything in the family. Just everything. I look up to her so much. She’s raised my sisters and I all by herself. We can go to her for anything.” There’s a humorous smile. “And she spoils us rotten.”

Emmett: He nods. “She sounds nice. Any question for me?”

GM: “When was the happiest you’ve ever been?”

Emmett: Summer. Sun and swampland. The disgusting air somehow feeling nice on his bare back.

“My dad has relatives in the bayou,” he says. No need to disguise that, and besides, his inhibitions are slightly dulled at this point. “We would sit by the water and just talk. Not about anything. Just stories, jokes. There would be a lot of silence, except you could hear the cicadas and the other bugs singing all the time, and we just…talked when we wanted to. My dad and uncles, and me. I don’t know. I don’t think I’d have fun there now. But it felt right, then.”

GM: “That does sound right,” Cécilia agrees thoughtfully. “When you know someone really well, you don’t always need to say something. Just being around them is enough.”

Emmett: “Sometimes,” El agrees. “Speaking of, what about your father? He isn’t in the family portrait. Do you ever see him?”

GM: “We don’t have a father in our lives,” Cécilia answers, shaking her head. “Maman manages all six of us by herself. I don’t know how she’s done it, sometimes.”

She considers her next question, then asks, “When is the happiest you’ve ever been for someone else?”

Emmett: For a terrifying moment, his mind goes utterly blank.

Why can’t he think of a time he was happy for somebody else? Lena’s working as a resident doctor, he must have congratulated her. He got her a gift and everything. But was he actually happy for her? He would have been no more upset had he been buying her a consolation gift.

But he has friends! Friends, who he’s kept in touch with all through school. Okay, he can’t remember ever actually being happy for one, but he must have…

Holy shit. Do I just not like people? What the fuck is wrong with me? It’s a basic question, I need to say something. God, I looked at her like she was the weird one. Fuck!

But then he remembers who he is.

A tear appears in El’s eye. It does not fall, and is blinked away quickly—but it is there. He lets her see it.

“My brother,” he says, “Devin, was a really awful student. It wasn’t his fault. ADD, some disorder that never got diagnosed—he’s just bad at sitting in a classroom. And I’ve always had trouble talking to him. He can be distant. Hard to talk to, also. It was like you’d expect at school. He didn’t go to Brother Martins, but you know, one of those places people call ‘special’ but mean something else, because they think it’s cute to patronize people who never asked to think differently. The day he got into Juilliard was the happiest I’ve ever seen him. He was crying.”

Elliott smiles faintly, bewitched by the better time. “I don’t always like him. I’m not always patient with him. Sometimes I don’t think I’m a very good brother. But seeing him like that, seeing my mom smiling while she read the letter—that was special. I wish I was strong enough to love him like that all the time.”

He has difficulty speaking towards the end. It might not be for the reason she thinks, but damn if it doesn’t sound good.

That’s right, you loveless little fuck. Spin it.

He really wants to take a sip of the wine. But he doesn’t.

GM: Em doesn’t remember the name of the wine Cécilia has been serving. It has a sensuous, silky texture that caresses the palette with exotic sensations: cherry liqueur, tobacco, pepper, earth, spice and bacon fat.

It’d be a bit redundant to take another sip now, he supposes.

His own tongue has a sensuous and silken enough texture already.

Cécilia drinks up the truth-laced lie like it’s another glass of that same luxuriant wine. After a moment she smiles,

“I think you do deserve to go to film school, El.”

Emmett: Maybe not, but I definitely deserve a kiss for that little stunt. Prude.

He laughs a little. “I’ll cite you when I apply. It’s hard asking you questions. I normally try to get people to give up the secrets and shame—you know, the interesting stuff. I don’t know where to start with you, though.” After a moment, he smiles. “Any advice?”

GM: “I could ask my mom to write you a reference letter, actually,” Cécilia offers. “She has some pull in arts circles, and she’d only be too happy after she hears about Adeline.”

Emmett: “Maybe,” he says. It’s far from the main thing on his mind. “We should talk about it later.”

GM: “Your future is important, El. But all right. We’ll talk about on my next turn,” she smiles.

“As far as interesting stuff… hmm. You could try finding out other things about me? Maybe I’m a little boring and don’t have many secrets and shames.”

Emmett: “I suppose anything’s possible, even that,” he says. “Have you ever been in love?” He smiles apologetically. “Has to come up at some point, right? That’s how these games work.”

GM: Cécilia smirks faintly. “Youth is a time for lust and romance, not love. I’ve had boyfriends. But love can wait until I’m older.”

Emmett: “That sounds almost like a practiced line,” he observes. “Not sure I disagree, though. Lust and romance are good things too.” He swirls the remaining wine in his glass.“What do you think love means, then?”

GM: “I won’t charge you for that one,” Cécilia teases. “But I think love can mean a lot of things even between the same people. The Greeks believed in seven different types of love—nurturing love between parents and children, enduring love between married couples, playful love between younger people looking for fun… you want, need, different kinds of love at different points in your life.”

Emmett: He nods, smiling. “So many questions, but I wouldn’t want to cheat you of your turn again.”

GM: “You’ll get yours. As for mine… would you like my mom to write you that letter?”

Emmett: He shrugs. “I’m seventeen and a junior. I guess I should be thinking about it, and I know I should just say yes, but somehow it feels like I’d be cheating if I didn’t meet her and at least do something to really earn it. But I’ll probably come around. Most letters of recommendations are favors, anyway. I guess I just have a bit of a complex about earning my keep.”

As if. Anyway, it’s not like I’d be able to actually use the damn thing.

GM: Cécilia shakes her head midway through El’s words, but waits to say, “Oh, you’ve already earned it. You’re right, honestly, that references are usually favors and have strings attached… but you’ve earned your keep. Maman will be happy to do you a favor back once I tell her about what you did for Adeline.”

Emmett: Ah, yes. What I did for Adeline. Such a saintly shit I am.

That’s what’s making her hesitate, he can see. The one hole in his liar’s web, the bit of him she sees through and keeps buzzing through like a retarded fly.

“If I’m being honest,” he says slowly, “it’s not that I don’t want to say yes. The future’s important, and I want to succeed, even if I’ve been trying to seem relaxed about it tonight. It’s just…well.” The blush is easy to manufacture, he’s been drinking and he’s always got his nerves, sitting at the bottom of a jar he rarely opens in his head labeled “Feelings.” He also keeps a Cajun accent in there, picked up from those summers he told her about. Oh, it’s not a sexy accent. But a little bit every once in a while? It’s like viagra for your ears.

“Sometimes when people help you, you become a certain kind of person in their eyes. And even though I helped your family tonight, I kind of get the feeling that’s not a common position for y’all. Maybe it’s a Cajun thing, maybe it’s something my dad told me, but once somebody helps you, even if you don’t owe them—sometimes they don’t see you the same.” He coughs. “And I guess, if I’m really playing fair, I’d say I’m worried about you seeing me differently.”

I guess you could say I don’t want you looking down at me. Unless you like being on top, in which case we can talk about it.

But of a risk, going for a soft touch like that. But it almost always pays off.

GM: “How do you mean there, El?” Cécilia asks curiously. “You’ve already helped us, after all. It’d only be making things even.”

Emmett: “It doesn’t make sense from that perspective,” he agrees. “But if everything works perfectly and I get into a good school and I become a director and make it to the big leagues… I’ll always wonder if I could have got there without your mother’s help.” He smiles sadly at her. “And I couldn’t help but worry that on some level, you—and your mother, I suppose—would wonder that too.” He shrugs. “Pride might be a foolish thing to keep. But if you throw it out, what goes next?”

Yeah, I bet that sounds good to you. Mommy told you stories about knights with their honor and chivalry when you were too young to know better, didn’t she?

GM: “To be honest, El, that’s how those places, or at least the good ones, tend to work,” Cécilia says. “It’s all about who knows who, who vouches for who… or it’s a PR stunt so the school can say they let in disadvantaged kids who don’t have anyone to write letters for them.”

Cécilia pauses. “That isn’t meant to sound cynical. It’s just how things work. But it doesn’t make you any less to be playing the same game as everyone else.”

Emmett: “I know,” he says. “It’s silly. But it’s how I am. Tell you what, though—I wanna convince your mom I’m worth her recommendation.”

Hopefully not until after I disappear from your life forever.

GM: “On your artistic merits, not just doing one of my sisters a good turn?” Cécilia asks.

Emmett: He nods. “Yeah. That’s the way these things should work. Or at least, the way I want it to work for me.”

GM: “That sounds fair,” Cécilia nods. “You’d like to play the game the same way as everyone else, but you’d like to have earned the right to do that too. So it really does still come down to your art.”

Emmett: “That’s another way of putting it,” he smiles. “More articulate, probably. But then, you’ve been explaining things I wouldn’t know how to begin talking about all night.”

GM: “Maybe you could explain things I wouldn’t know how to begin talking about some other night. Like filmmaking.”

Emmett: He’s happy to oblige. He doesn’t want to drown her in technical stuff—besides, he has a lot to learn about the trade himself, or he wouldn’t be trying to go to school for it.

What he does have is passion, and passion pays all bills. Em doesn’t have to make El come off like an expert—he weaves this part of the character from himself, and as he talks the words come easily. The truth is, expertise never gets anybody laid. It’s love of the art that makes somebody seem to glow with genius.

So Em puts words in El’s mouth straight from his own. How nothing else can submerge him like a scene done well. How a good movie takes advantage of the things other mediums can’t, sound and timing and lighting, how the best movies do something more special than create a feeling; they teach viewers how to feel.

But more than that, he talks about moments. Scenes, lines, shots—the things that tie a movie together, like that rug in The Big Lebowski does that room. How when the credits roll and the show’s over, all people will really remember—the only thing that matters—will be how those moments made them feel.

The best movies are just stories so beautiful you forget they aren’t stories, he says, his eyes wide and reflecting her pretty, pale face. And the most beautiful stories always become their own truths.

He’s sure she knows how to begin talking about it. That’s the thing about a show. The only thing you need to understand it is to let yourself watch it.

Through it all, he performs for her. He can see the scene like it’s being shot over his shoulder. Her gaze on his, a close up of his eyes flickering with that mad enthusiasm as he talks only real love can kindle.

Em might not like people, really. He might be broken inside, deeply emotionally stunted, maybe even some flavor of psycho—he doesn’t know. He’d rather not think about it.

But he’s always been a sucker for the pictures. And if he was directing this scene, he’d make sure the shot captured her pale reflection in his dark, almost madly loving eyes.

He’s pretty damn sure that’s what she’ll remember when the credits roll, too.

GM: The credits aren’t the only point the audience applauds.

They don’t applaud for every movie. Or even most movies. No one claps when the credits roll for the Saturday afternoon matinée. But the audience still does that, sometimes, for the debut of a long-awaited film with beloved enough characters. Sometimes they even clap before the credits, if it’s particularly brilliantly directed.

The credits are a long way from rolling. But Em’s pretty sure his audience would be giving him a standing ovation right about now.

Em could say the words flowed from his tongue like honey, sweet and irresistible to the object of his attentions, but it’s more than that. So much more. That quote, ‘Once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made’ got it all wrong. You can’t fake real sincerity. It comes from the heart. It’s real.

The words flow from Em’s tongue, not El’s, because this is real. He sees the whole scene play out in his mind’s eye like an acclaimed director seated from his felt-backed folding chair. He motions lazily to the film crew and barks out directions from the megaphone. Lights here. Sound there. Close-up here. You know the drill, people. Actors… here’s the part he puts down the megaphone, beckons his two young leads closer, and gives them the ‘these are your characters’ talk about their roles.

El, he says with that serious demeanor reserved for true artists, you’re the devilishly handsome and devilishly charming (how much is he really embellishing?) conman racing to fill the void in his heart (wow, that’s honest) by stealing the girl’s. Cici, he says, you’re the beautiful, rich, and cultured heiress who’s everything El wants out of life. He’s going to get you in the end, because that’s how these stories go. Boy meets girl. Boy gets girl. Tale as old as time.

You can’t ever go wrong with the classics. Audiences eat that shit right up. He’ll lead them along, all right… and write his own ending. In the meantime, the actors will play their parts.

And how they play them.

Cécilia is overcome as a palette of emotions play across her beautiful features. Enrapturement. Admiration. Excitement. Awe. It’s a long shot, and Em the director would linger on every single frame.

“El… we have to get you to film school,” she says almost breathlessly, reaching out to touch his arm. “Your passion, your energy, your love… it’s just contagious. I can’t even imagine what things you might put on a screen.”

“Have you had a chance to make any movies yourself? Amateur ones, of course?” she asks, but the question seems far from judging. She’s already been sold.

Emmett: “Besides silly things when I was younger I wouldn’t want to show anyone? Not really. I’d be a perfectionist and that would mean recruiting a lot of people for a project. I suppose if I want to play things fair, I’ll have to make one for her to see.”

He’s getting better at talking like Elliott—this guy isn’t smarter than him, but he talks like he is, picking the second-smartest thing to say he can think of every time he opens his mouth. Talking like you’re smart is half the battle, anyway. You may as well be.

GM: “And I suppose I’ll just have to ask her to help,” Cécilia replies brightly. “I know she’s going to be home at… how would Monday at 4 be, for you to come over and talk about things with her?”

Emmett: Shit, what? Can’t hesitate.

“That… sounds amazing, Cécilia.” He laughs. “This whole night’s been insane. I don’t know how to thank you.” His eyes glitter. “You don’t have to tell me, but you would have to drink.”

GM: “Well, start by repeating this,” Cécilia smiles. “‘Cela nous rend même.’”

Emmett: He repeats it, doing his best to mangle them only slightly. “Do I get to know what I just said?” he jokes.

GM: “Yes. You said, ‘That makes us even’,” Cécilia grins.

Emmett: “Ah, you tricked me.”

He scratches at the back of his neck, laughing. “I hope that doesn’t mean you’re done with me.”

It’s then that he notices something feels wrong. A wriggling in his stomach, like a snake sleeping under a rock he’s kicked over with his dancing. So much of his life is refusing the responsibility others insist on shoving at his feet, and yet she’s so damn earnest. She really wants to help the artsy, romantic fool succeed.

It’s almost childish. That’s what it is. He’s taking candy from a baby, and the only problem with that is that he’s stealing from a baby, and love is so much sweeter and more expensive than candy.

For a moment—a naked, mewling, moment—he wants to tell her the truth. But the truth is a movie nobody can turn off. There’s no applause or one-liners or winks at the camera. Just a long, unbroken shot of him being a garbage human being.

And he might not like her, not deeply, not like he’s pretending to—but he likes her too much to see her look at him like that.

The truth’s like a special ed class full of drooling invalids and chattering morons. It matters to somebody, somewhere. But not him. Not now. He prefers his Juilliard story.

So he sees a moment where he can do the right thing, and he steps on the brakes before he makes a stupid mistake.

But damn if that snake cares.

Emmett II, Chapter I
School Dance

“First impressions can be misleading, right?”
Emmett Delacroix

Date ?

GM: Emmett doesn’t know what day it is. It’s been almost exactly the same as every other day he’s spent in his windowless 9×5 concrete cage. Today there were two cockroaches to squash among his powdered eggs and undercooked grits. He doesn’t remember if they tasted like anything. It long since feels like he’s lost the capacity for taste.

His post-breakfast nap was the same. Sleeping remains the best way to pass time on death row. He sleeps as much as he can. It beats being awake.

Sleep always recedes, eventually. He is left to sit, alone, in the featureless concrete box and think. And think. And think.

Sleeping always beats being awake in death row.

There’s no announcement or fanfare as the pexiglass-windowed steel door swings open. Guards haul him out of the concrete box on his wheelchair. He has a visitor.

That makes it Sunday. Visitors are only allowed on that one day a week.

Guards follow him as he wheels himself down a featureless steel and concrete corridor that looks exactly the same as every room in Angola. There are uncomfortable-looking steel stools around pexiglass windows and an attached steel countertop. Phones hang from dividers between the seats.

The room is empty save for a blonde teenage girl on the other side of the pexiglass. She’s dressed in casual clothing and looks uncannily like Cécilia Devillers, give or take a decade younger. She’s already holding the phone on her side of the window as she flashes Emmett a pretty smile and waves as she sees his wheelchair approach.

Emmett: Cécilia. There are memories better left alone, though less painful than his most recent traumas.

“Hey, look,” the wheelchair-bound con says into the phone. “It’s some loser in a chair come to gawk.” He squints. “Oh, that’s just my reflection. Which makes you my visitor. I recognize you, but I don’t know you. Devillers?”

GM: “Wah yes,” the girl smiles through the glass. “Yvette Devillers. Ah’m so ‘appy to get to meet you… you’re Emmett Delacroix, of course.”

Emmett: “Uh huh. What’d I do this time? Or did your sister send you?” He chuckles. “That’d be a nice little shit cherry on top of my execution sundae. Kinda poetic if she found out about me.”

And fuck you for smiling. There should be laws against being happy near condemned people and cripples. Nobody would follow them, but they’d be nice to have.

GM: “Which one of mah sisters? Ah’m afraid Ah ’ave five, so…” She gives an airy laugh. “…well, people usually ‘ave to be specific, they can’t even just say ‘your younger one’.”

Emmett: “Bit creepy if I was talking about the younger ones, wouldn’t it be? I’m not on death row for being a pedo, at least. That’d be a nice thing to have on my grave, wouldn’t it? Worthless Deadbeat, But Not a Pedophile. Maybe a bit wordy.”

He glances at an imaginary watch. “Not that I have places to be, but I’m pretty sure even princesses don’t get forever to chat with the convicts. You have something to say to me?”

GM: Yvette nods. “Oui, of course. But we ‘ave time, don’t worry.”

She smiles again. “Ah’m afraid you’ll still ’ave to be more specific, though. Ah ’ave two older sisters. Adeline or Cécilia?”

Emmett: “What, Cici never found out El’s real name? That’s a shame.” He snaps his fingers. “Ah, I’m such a ditz. I forgot, we did meet.”

Friday evening, 7 September 2007

GM: The start of Emmett’s high school junior year has not been a pleasant time for the Delacroix household. Neither have any of the past several years, for that matter.

Slipping grades. “You still need a good GPA to get into film school,” his mom (and even Lena) had said. Rude and disrespectful behavior towards teachers. Rude and disrespectful behavior towards fellow students. Associating with “bad people” outside of school. Lack of motivation. Pissing his future away. The Delacroixes have talked about all of those things, and a lot more things.

They’ve talked about them with teachers, guidance counselors, therapists, and even priests. They’ve pissed away a lot of time and money. Talking has not worked. It’s at the advice of Emmett’s aunt Clarice that his parents are taking more significant steps to get his future back on track.

They’ve pulled him out of the moderately priced private school he’d attended since he was a little kid. They’ve enrolled him in Jesuit High School for his last two years of secondary education. It’s Catholic. Boys only. Tuition is expensive—around $8,000 a year, closer to $10,000 in 2016.

It’ll get him back on track.

The faculty doesn’t tolerate the same shit they did at Emmett’s old coed school. The lack of girls also presents one fewer way to get in trouble.

Emmett’s enjoyed it as much as anyone might expect. The families of some boys there have to scrape and look into financial aid options like the Delacroixes did. Others don’t, and never let Emmett forget it. Comfortably middle class to them is poor.

The school isn’t completely without perks, though. They partner up with all-girls’ schools for dances. This year’s homecoming is being held at the Louise S. McGehee School. Emmett’s heard a few things about the girls there. Catholic boys still have imaginations as dirty as public school ones.

If there’s another perk to be said for expensive private schools, it’s that they have bigger budgets. It looks like an event decorating company came in for tonight. They’ve done over the gym with strings of pulsating lights, fancy-looking drapes, and clusters of glowing balloons twisted into funky shapes. The ambient lighting is dark and purple. Throngs of adolescents in semi-formal attire sway and dance to music pumping from a modern surround sound system. Scintillating lights excitedly spill over their undulating bodies. The air-conditioned gym still feels all-too warm from the dancers’ sweat and adolescent hormones—a fact of which the silently surveying adult chaperones appear well aware.

Emmett: All things considered, Em’s done a pretty good job of lying his way into a new school.

It wasn’t hard to let his grades fall, or to get caught having fun behind the bleachers with an anonymous note sent to the right office. Having a good reason to fuck with teachers was a perk, too. It also wasn’t that hard to order catalogs featuring Brother Martin’s—a school where somebodies went to, whereas the Delacroixes were well-established nobodies—off his mom’s credit card. Not that she knew he knew her PIN.

Why start over? Why the new school, why let his parents bust his balls, chew him out, when he could eke out a comfortable career as a moderately daring delinquent with a fraction of the headache? Sometimes, he even wonders if he’s making mistake after mistake, just like Mom loves to assure him he is.

But no. Emmett Delacroix has a secret.

Emmett Delacroix has a dream.

New school, new kids. New friends. New Em. And boy, does Em seem to change when first semester comes around. The reports coming home start looking a lot different. Teachers praise his quick camaraderie with the other students despite being new to the school, and Brother Martin’s first film club actually earns him extra credits so he doesn’t have to take gym. Plus, it’s easy to talk the extracurricular department into coughing up “pizza money.” Film club becomes the place to be.

In his old school, Em had baggage. Not a lot, but enough. He had old friends, people who knew his weird secrets and embarrassing idiosyncrasies. Nothing bad, really—nothing like Horace Weaverton, who had wet the bed at every sleepover until he was ten. No, Em’s old school reminded him too much of something inconvenient. As long as he went there, he would always have to be just one more desperate middle-class nobody. As long as he stayed where he grew up, Em could never be his best self, his perfect self.

That makes sense, right? It does at seventeen.

No, the last year hasn’t been a happy one for the Delacroix household. But the last few weeks have sure looked happier from the outside in. But there’s one more thing Em needs. One more person to believe in him, if he’s going to do any of the mad shit he plans after this joke of a school.

He hasn’t told anybody yet how he’s thinking of skipping the whole college scene. He can see his parents shaking their heads already. No, he needs to prove what he desperately needs to be true: that any lie repeated often enough will come to life.

Emmett Delacroix has a happy life.

Emmett Delacroix has a happy life.

Emmett Delacroix has a happy life.

Emmett Delacroix has a happy life.

“Tell me again, about who’s who,” he asks the boy next to him as they both watch the early dancers.
He looks good in his suit. Frustratingly good. Em might not be in shape, but he’s always been able to make laziness look elegant.

GM: The other boy, Lee, looks merely all right in his. The freshman’s heart-shaped face and deep blue eyes could be handsome, especially for a 15-year-old, if he smiled more and stood up straighter. He doesn’t. He wears his resentment at the world like a dark cloud, and hasn’t found much reason to pretend otherwise at the boys-only school. Perhaps he’s figured he could simply take it off for an evening’s dance. But some masks are heavy, and not so easily donned or removed.

Em would know. He’s not taken off his.

Lee points to a tall blonde girl who’s dancing in the literal center of the limelight. “So that’s Erika Kelly. I guess she’s a big deal, or thinks she is. Her grandpa’s a senator, and, like, a million years old. My family are Republicans and always bitching about the Kellys being flaming liberals when they’re really just exactly the fucking same as us.”

He points at two other nearby girls.

“That’s Cécilia and Adeline Devillers, I guess they’re the local inbreds.” The two strikingly similar-looking girls share the same pale skin, pale blonde hair and clear blue eyes. One looks maybe a few years older than the other, but that’s the only real difference Em can tell.

“Or not local, I guess. French inbreds. Guess you can be an inbred wherever you’re from. And their mom is such a hero and does a bunch of charity bullshit.”

He points at a dark-haired girl with clear gray eyes.

“That’s… Zee I think, Flores.” Lee looks as if he’s trying to think of something, then settles for, “Her dad’s an idiot.”

He points at another girl, also with dark hair, but with brown eyes and olive skin. “That’s Elizabeth St. John, I think her family are into banking and oil, they’re also idiots.”

He points at another two South Asian girls. “Don’t even ask me what their names are, there’s a fucking million of those stupid Pavaghis. But I know their dad, or grandpa, whatever, has pissed off a bunch of peoples’ parents here, so I guess they have that going. At least their grandpa-dad’s honest about how he just wants to fuck everyone over and make money. I mean, being honest about being an asshole, what could be worse.”

Lee points at a curly-haired ginger with beady gray eyes. He looks around college age. “That’s Artie Dolan. His family are cooks, I guess they figure if they kiss enough ass they’ll get to be, like, senators too. I hear he got out of rehab or something. Or a mental institution. Or that he was thrown out of the army for being insane and shooting people. I’ve heard some weird stuff about him, like that he molests girls. Great choice having him as a chaperone, huh?”

He points to a graying-haired woman who’s some distance away from the kids. “That’s ‘Strong’, yeah, that actually is her name, the principal. ‘Cuz they actually have three different ones at this school. I think she wants to kiss ass too, until she’s the headmistress. Like, what is this, the ’40s? England?”

He points to another parental-age woman with sandy blonde hair. “That’s, what’s her name, something Flores. I hear things are really weird with her and Zee, and that she’s, like, stalking her.”

He points to a gray-haired older man. “That’s Lyman Whitney. His daughter got killed by a drunk driver during a prom here, a couple years back. He’s supposed to be this big-shot CEO, and yeah, here he is at a high school dance on Friday, instead of, you know, hookers and blow.” Lee shakes his head in mock disbelief. “I hear he’s still moping over his dead daughter. So maybe he thinks he can play hero or something here, save some more girls, because I guess high school dances are just so dangerous. Kinda sad.”

“So, yeah.” Lee finishes his sarcastic shpeel with a dramatic sweep of his arm across the throngs of dancing teens. “You missed so much not going to school here, Em!”

Emmett: Em absorbs the various bites of gossip with nods, grunts, and eye-rolls in the appropriate sympathetic places. His interest in the pale-skinned blondes lingers after Lee’s (poor) dis.

“Not too shabby, Lee. Gotta say, you know a lot about them for somebody who’s so over all that petty stuff.”

The compliment is shallow, but so is Lee’s ego. People like him—


—eat that shit up.

GM: “Well, they just love to talk about themselves,” the younger boy replies, his tone an odd admixture of defensive and laughing along (or at least, sneering along) with the surface compliment.

Emmett: He takes a sip of punch and nods. “And you’re a good listener. Congrats. Tell me again how your family fits into this whole weird scene? Country club pals?”

GM: Lee ladles some out too. “Yeah, just more douchebags like all the rest.”

Emmett: Em nods, turning the information over in his head. “So, Whitney’s all sentimental, Strong’s got big ambitions, stay away from Dolan, nobody likes the Pavaghis, and the cute looking ones are inbreds? I mean, being from Louisiana, how picky can we be?”

Em has a lot of friends here, but Lee’s convenient. He’s connected but unimportant, legit but not gilded. Needy, but not picky. Those were the ones you needed to keep around you. They’re bred to be winners, and they hate feeling like losers because they’re told to trust their instincts.

Em gets it. He’s been there. Which probably makes his unceasing contempt for it slightly questionable.
If he was the questioning type.

GM: “Yeah, I guess th-”

Lee’s eyes scan the crowd of dancing, neon-painted adolescents. He sets down his punch cup.

“Ah, crap. You gotta cover me.”

Emmett: Em’s eyes follow the freshman’s, hopefully without seeming too interested.

Arthur: Through the prong of dancing neon-painted youths, the familiar ginger curls of Artie Dolan sifts through the crowd, approaching the pair with a patented lopsided smile and bleary, grey eyes. The pale-faced redhead finally settles his gaze on Lee who is trying to hide. He remains silent for a moment as he stares down the freshman. “I take it you two boys are having fun, hmm?”

GM: “We’re not dancing with any girls,” Lee seems to simultaneously bristle, complain, and offer as ‘proof’ in a surly-sounding defense.

Arthur: “Why not?” he asks, bemusedly. He then reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a metal flask. He takes a sip, and then his smile grows, revealing crooked, uneven teeth.

Emmett: Em grins at the redhead approaching, and only smiles wider when he sees the flask. “Not as much fun as you’re having. You must be Artie Dolan, right? Happy to meet you. Heard you’re an interesting dude. Y’all are chefs, right?” His voice is apologetically polite, as if to compensate for his “friend’s,” and his accent a hint more Cajun than it was with Lee.

Arthur: “Yes. I see my reputation precedes me,” the redhead replies, taking another sip. He appears completely nonchalant as he then proffers the flask. “I won’t tell if you don’t, of course.” His bleary, grey eyes stagnate on Lee for a moment as his toothy grin grows.

GM: “Yeah, I bet you wouldn’t,” Lee snorts. He continues to sip his punch.

Arthur: The ginger’s face twists into mocking disappointment as he takes another sip from the container, chuckling to himself. His attention then turns back to Em. “What about you, handsome? Do you have a name?”

Emmett: “I do, but I’d rather just get called handsome forever. I’m Em. You wouldn’t know my family,” the seventeen-year-old says with a smile that feels illegal. He sloshes a bit of booze into his mostly full cup and grins at Lee. “C’mon, don’t go all abstinence on me. You ever been drunk before?”

Like a real person instead of the limp-dicked phoney you see every morning when you stare at your reflection in the toilet? he doesn’t add, but makes sure Lee knows he’s thinking. It’s all in the face, how he stands. A challenge, but not one you could ever call out. Not unless you have balls, which Lee doesn’t and most likely won’t find until his first divorce.

GM: Lee doesn’t call it out—at least not coming from someone as popular as Em. Instead he glowers at Arthur.

“This guy knows how many times I’ve gotten drunk. He could be trying to get us busted.”

Emmett: “Relax.” Em’s voice is gentler, now. “World’s not out to get you, Lee, and tonight’s supposed to be fun. So have fun. Besides, it’s not like you were planning on driving home, was it? Drink a toast with me. You too. Artie, right?” He raises the solo cup, not aggressively but forcefully, definitely.

How the hell do you say no to somebody who never lets on that they’re selling you something in the first place?

GM: Lee looks at Arthur, watches him drink, then takes the flask and spills some into his own punch cup. The younger boy’s motions aren’t at all nervous or uncertain. He doesn’t make any excited or ‘look at how we’re drinking’ remarks. Just tosses it back.

“Heh. Whoops,” he smirks.

He raises the cup again in toast.

“What should we drink to? Well, drink some more to.”

Emmett: “Beautiful people, Lee. What else. Beautiful people.”


GM: “Beautiful people,” Lee toasts, drinking.

Arthur: “To me,” Artie toasts, drinking.

GM: The fifteen-year-old cracks a snicker before taking another pull.

“Yeah. To us.”

Friday evening, 7 September 2007

Emmett: The next half-hour or so Em isn’t dancing on the floor, though he practically feels as if he is dancing. He plays coy with the girls, politely declining dances but socializing enthusiastically. He keeps Lee close-but-not-too-close, reuniting and drinking with him frequently throughout the night—and always pushing Lee to go the extra sip. The drunker the freshman, the better for what Em’s thinking. It’s not like he doesn’t reward the (other) moody teen for his compliance—plenty of wicked jokes about the various pairs of dancers get whispered to Lee, making sure to focus on the boys Lee envies and despises the most. He makes sure to encourage his other friends (you know, my “real” friends, he half-heartedly thinks) to talk to her or maybe her or that one over there. He also finds small moments during lulls to make nice with Lyman Whitney (“Hi, I think my parents use your bank” as if he hadn’t withdrawn money from a Bank of Columbia account two hours ago).

But throughout, he makes nice with Artie, chatting him up, genuinely interested in his experiences.

“Lee said your family were cooks. That’s gotta make family dinner hell.”

Arthur: “It makes family dinners interesting to say the least,” Artie jokes rather breezily. “We’re a big family, and I mean that in more ways than one. What about your family, Em? What do your parents do?”

Emmett: “Not much, these days—my mom’s actually related to Louis Armstrong, and his estate’s bigger than you’d think. Dad used to be a talent agent, now he does a lot of personal recruiting—mostly for fun, you know. He’s able to do it without panicking now.”

He keeps his face perfect as he lays out the lie, really a good story out of control, between sips of ‘punch’.

Arthur: The ginger takes another sip and regards the younger man with a thoughtful gaze. “I can certainly see the resemblance between you and Louis Armstrong now that you mention it,” he remarks, airily.

Emmett: “Thanks, I get that more than you’d think,” he agrees. “But you’re also in the army, right? Or were?”

Arthur: Arthur’s gray eyes look upward for a moment before he answers. “Not exactly. I went to a military school,” he answers, laughing.

GM: Em’s father threatened him with that once.

Emmett: A truth he actually shares with Artie. “I had a little thing with this girl he was trying to bag for his agency. Singer-songwriter, that kind of thing.” She was a T.A. for his freshman environmental class and he wouldn’t have asked her to carry a tune. She liked writing haikus, though. “What’d I miss? Bet they have less dances.”

Arthur: “We do this one thing that’s sort of like a conga line. Only we don’t move at all and instead of music we get yelled at by our instructor.”

Emmett: He actually laughs at that. “That sounds like a rough time. Are you magically a reformed member of society now? How’d you end up pulling chaperone duty?”

Arthur: Artie gives Em a sly look. “I lost a bet with one of my relatives, of course,” he answers. “I am as reformed as a televangelist caught cheating on his wife.”

Emmett: “Kinda specific jibe, but I dig it. You’re a funny guy.” The compliment is accompanied by a grin. “How’d you meet the Malveaux brat?”

Arthur: “Family acquaintances. I don’t personally know him, of course.”

Emmett: “That makes sense—he seemed kind of condescending. They treat you the same way they treat me? Like you get to look at them and hang out with them, and that means you should feel included?”

Arthur: “We’re still part of the servant class in the eyes of some families,” Arthur freely admits, nodding his head. “It definitely grates on the nerves of a few of my family members, but personally I don’t really care for the family politics.”

Emmett: “I’m the same way. Big hippies, my parents. You know, artists.” He takes a sip and watches the dancing couples. “Who’s you lose the bet to?”

Arthur: “My grandmother.” He asks, “What kind of artists are your parents?”

Emmett: “Like I said, dad’s a talent agent. Mom’s trust is pretty big, but she sings, too. Mostly private parties, events for people like this who think it’s look good to have Armstrong’s half-white relative sing at a party.”

He laughs, too. “Your grandma got you out here? Would she have shared the booze, too?”

Arthur: “She’s the reason I went to military school. What do you think?” he chuckles loudly.

Emmett: Em continues talking with the chaperone over the next hour whenever he encounters him at the party. He’s a little bit surprised by how much he likes Artie—at least, insofar as he finds it harder to actively dislike him. For his part, he does his best to encourage the chaperone to open up around him and talk freely. Adults always let interesting things slip when they’re not listening to themselves, anyway.

Arthur: Artie is only too happy to oblige, sharing more anecdotes and half-truths with the young man.

In between chats, Artie mostly keeps to himself (aside from speaking to and making small talk with the odd actual adult) and finds a dark corner to drink in peace.

GM: Those actual adults remind him that it’s his job while he’s here to keep an eye on the young adults. The more ‘excitable’ kids will go right back to grinding if someone doesn’t break them up.

“Say, Arthur, what is that you’re drinking?” Principal Strong asks in an ‘idle’ tone that seems far from idle.

Arthur: “Principal Strong!” Arthur greets brightly, smiling crookedly at the older woman as a flutter of laughter leaves his lips. “You’re looking absolutely radiant! In answer to your question though, the flask in my hand is something I confiscated from a student.”

GM: The graying-haired woman doesn’t look ‘radiant’ under the dance floor’s pulsating lights so much as violet, but the still-college-age youth has to admit she doesn’t look bad for a woman her age either. Good figure, high cheekbones, not too many wrinkles. MILF territory.

Arthur: I’d smash.

GM: Principal Strong sighs. “These boys. I swear the Catholic ones get up to even more hijinks. The people at Brother Martin’s can deal with this. Did you let one of them know?”

Arthur: “They say the Romans knew how to party, and I suppose Catholicism originates from there,” Arthur muses aloud. “I promised the boy that I wouldn’t say anything if he gave me the flask. It wouldn’t be right to breach the boy’s trust, of course. But unfortunately yes, I have already let the people at Brother Martin’s know. I actually feel very bad about it.”

GM: “I grant you absolution for your sin,” the principal responds dryly, then sighs. “And while you’re at it, break up any students you hear repeating that story about Rebecca Whitney’s ghost. God knows it’s upsetting to her father.”

Arthur: “Understandable!” Arthur responds in mild shock. “How terrible!”

He recalls hearing and laughing at the same story only a few minutes earlier.

But thinking on it, he is suddenly reminded of his own daughter. He feels a well of sympathy and regret at his drunken flippancy. Is this fatherhood? Reassessing yourself as a person and wanting to be better?

He feels the urge to take another swig from his flask but resists, waiting for Principal Strong to leave before surreptitiously doing so.

GM: His musings on his personal growth are interrupted as a dark-haired girl in the crowd saddles up to him.

“You drinking something better than punch there?” she smiles, her face painted purple by the gym’s low lighting.

Arthur: Arthur pauses, drunkenness setting in. He smiles slyly as he takes another swig. “Anything’s better than punch,” he answers.

GM: “I bet. Wanna share?” the girl smiles back.

Arthur: Arthur chuckles. “Always.” He then offers the flask as he blearily studies the girl, wondering who she is and where he’s seen her face. “I’m Arthur. What’s your name?”

GM: “Thirsty,” the teenager answers as she plucks the flask from Arthur’s hands.

“But I’m Samantha when I’m not,” she winks as she takes a pull. “Mm, that’s good stuff. You got any more?”

She hands the flask back. Its weight feels empty.

Arthur: “At my apartment,” he answers, lecherously. He pockets the flask with a slightly sad, empty feeling in the pit of his stomach.

GM: “I’d need more than one pull before saying yes to that,” the girl retorts, tilting her head. “So if you’re a chaperone here, what’s your story?”

Arthur: The redhead laughs. “I don’t like babysitting, and drinking helps me cope,” he replies, gingerly. “Drinking helps me cope with a lot of things. I’m wonderfully imperfect like that.” He gives her a crooked look, smiling at Samantha like an alligator. “What’s your story? What made you want to talk to poor little ol’ ugly me?”

GM: “I was thirsty. And I knew you’d look less ugly after at least one drink,” the teenager smirks.

The glances towards the throngs of dancing adolescents closer to the center of the gym. Top 20 hits pound as specks of light flash over their undulating, purple-illuminated bodies.

“If you’re not into babysitting, wanna dance?”

Arthur: “You seem like the type who’d either make or break my reputation. How can I possibly say no?” he asks, offering to take the lead.

GM: “You seem like the type not to care about his reputation,” Samantha answers, shaking her hips as she swings in front of him.

Artie’s flask is empty. But he can feel it in his gut with the rising pounding of the music and the coy way his partner is looking at him.

Tonight is going to be a good night.

Friday evening, 7 September 2007

GM: Em ends up declining numerous dances of his own. Lots of girls all want to dance with him. Erika, Zee, Elizabeth, the Pavaghis. Plenty more whose names he doesn’t know.

“Oh c’mon, just one!”

“You shy?”

“Later, okay?”

“Ooh, hard to get…”

Lee isn’t so picky with either his girls or his booze. He seems to come alive as the liquored punch loosens his inhibitions. Girls laugh, smile, and even squeal when he ‘grinds’ against them.

It’s inevitable at any high school dance, rich or poor, Catholic or secular. Chaperones try to break up the genital-to-buttock contact, but the kids just start doing it again after the adults leave—and it’s always raunchiest at the tightly-packed center of the crowd.

Lyman Whitney gets some odd looks from the ‘couples’ he breaks up when he tells the girls, more sadly than angrily, to “remember your futures”. He seems pleased by the small talk Em initiates and lectures the teenager on the importance of planning for his financial future. The younger you start, the better.

“My daughter had already started saving for retirement,” he says almost wistfully. “She didn’t need to, but she did anyway. Save young and you can retire young.”

Emmett: “That makes a lot of sense,” the teen says solemnly (and insincerely, even if his vanity is stroked by the old bankers’ sentimentality. “My mom often says the same thing. Never too early to start saving. Or too late, I suppose.”

It hurts the lover in him to say no so much. It does. And on one level, he knows he doesn’t have to do any of this, but on another level—would dancing with somebody he won with a smile be as fun?

Still, he notes the Devillers aren’t among the two asking, and that just confirms what he suspects. There’s the simple life. The life that everybody’s folded and ironed for him.

And then there’s what he can find for himself.

Lee’s loss of inhibition is all he needs. It’s about five minutes after an exasperated-looking chaperone separates him from one such squealing high schooler that he checks in with the freshman. “How’s the party treatin’ you?”

GM: “Not bad, not bad,” Lee answers Emmett, his voice half-slurred. “These girls… lotta fun. Kinda… slutty… but hey, guess they’re all… girls are girls. Guess they just wanna have fun, like the song.”

The Devillers girls, meanwhile, are off the edge of the party. The older one is talking to the younger one. Her expression and body language are consoling.

Emmett: Probably the right time then. Em laughs. “Yeah, they are. And they do, man. Even the stuck up ones. Have you gone up to one of the inbreds yet? They’ve been playing it cool all night.”

GM: Lee shakes his head over the pop music’s pounding thumps.

“Probably freak out if I wanted to really dance with them. Bet they haven’t even felt a dick before. They’re probably a bunch of drooling lesbos. ’Cuz incest goes with being inbred like coffee and beignets. Heh. Would be hot, though.”

Emmett: Em makes sure to laugh at the right time, lets Lee know with his smile that why yes, he really is as cool as he thinks he is.

“Yeah? There’s an easy way to find out. You should ask the younger one to dance. Get into it, then see what you find under that dress. You know? Make sure she doesn’t have a dick, like that really tall Malveaux girl. I’ll be chatting up his—I mean, her sister. Maybe tonight I’ll figure out whether she’s got one either.

He can see that he won’t have to do much to convince him at this point. This is the third time Em’s seen him drunk, and Lee’s right where he wants him to be.

Everybody needs a Lee.

Knew he made the right call convincing him to come tonight. Not that it was hard..

GM: Lee gives Emmett an odd look at the reference to a transgender Malveaux, but then slurs, “Know what? I bet we’re not even kidding. I bet onea those inbreds really does have a dick. Six girls, yeah right.”

The freshman tosses back another drink, then declares, “’M gonna prove it.”

“Prove it to the whole school,” he mutters. “Fuck those inbreds. Ruin their life. Fuck everyone always ignorin’ me. Fuck… everyone.”

He takes another pull of punch and ambles off without waiting for a response. Cécilia and Adeline are standing by another punch bowl, talking amongst themselves.

“…Ah don’t really like this. It’s so dark and noisy. You can barely talk with people,” grumbles the younger girl.

“I know, maybe it wasn’t a good idea,” Cécilia answers. “Why don’t you try just one dance, closer in? We’ll go if you don’t like it.”

“Boys are grindi-”

Adeline is cut off as a drunken Lee shouts, “HEY WANNA DANCE!” and all but throws himself against her backside like they’re at a football game instead of homecoming. Adeline gives an alarmed cry as she stumbles forward, trips, and falls to her knees in a heap. The top of her strapless dress falls down. The two smooth and pale breasts look, to Em’s estimation, all-too genuinely female.

All color drains from Cécilia’s face.

Emmett: Attaboy, idiot.

Em’s already nearby, and he can almost see the “disaster” before it happens. He all but sprints to the couple, slides nimbly between Lee and the topless girl (don’t look, spoils the trick if you look too appreciatively) and slaps the freshman like he’s found the piñata at the party.

Mind, Em’s not usually a slapping kind of guy. But Lee’s drunk, he sees Em as a friend, and the best part of a slap is how loud it can be. He can almost feel eyes and ears turning.

“Jesus Christ, Malveaux. I thought your family at least would have taught you how to act around women even if they knew you were a tasteless asshole. Get out of here, Wes.” He’s already turning to help Adeline up, averting his eyes politely (and despite most of his teenage instincts).

Go on, make a scene. Please make a scene, with everybody watching already on my side. Maybe you can even try to hit me back. Loser.

He’d be lying if he wasn’t extra smug about pulling one over on the family his own railed against regularly at the dinner table. Maybe one day, he would even tell this story to Dad. He’d have a sense of humor about it, right? Maybe when he was super old and bitter about the dying earth. More bitter, obviously.

GM: It’s hard to say whether the slap or Em’s about-face hits Lee worse. The younger boy just stands there dumbly for a moment, looking between his ‘friend’ and the scene he’s caused almost confusedly.

Adeline frantically crosses her arms over her chest instead of taking Em’s hand. She looks completely speechless.

Cécilia quickly recovers herself as she stoops down to attend her sister. “We need your jacket, please!” she exclaims to Em.

Bystanders are already starting to look.

Emmett: It’s already coming off and being draped around the exposed girl. He doesn’t say anything right then, too much tension, but lets them see nothing but concern on his face. He also adjusts his position to give her a bit more coverage from the bulk of the crowd.

GM: “You ASSHOLE! This was ALL YOUR IDEA!” Westley shouts. Em knows years-suppressed bitterness more than well enough to see the punch coming, but his betrayed friend is simply too enraged. A solid clock to the eye sends the 17-year-old stumbling back. Screams and exclamations go up from the crowd.

“Leave him alone, Westley!” Cécilia shouts, her face pale with anger. “Just leave us all alone!”

Emmett: “I said you should dance with somebody, not attack them!” The confusion and obvious disgust is easy to fake with how much that actually stings, you sore loser!

One hand covers a swelling eye, but the other is staring with something like pity. “Just leave, ass. Before you make things worse for everybody.”

He makes sure he’s between him and Adeline. He’ll have to get her a drink to make up for this. Or something. Seems only fair.

GM: The noise and commotion on the outer edges of the dance swiftly draws chaperones.

“What’s going on here!” Lyman Whitney angrily demands, looking between Westley, Em, and the two kneeling Devillers girls.

Principal Strong’s eyes dangerously narrow. “Mr. Malveaux. What a surprise to find you at this particular dance…”

“Oh, you poor things!” Mrs. Flores exclaims, kneeling by the Devillers girls. “Here, I’ve got a bobby pin, this isn’t anything we can’t fix…”

Emmett: “He’s drunk, sir. Somebody should probably call his family,” Em answers Whitney.

GM: “He’s lying! This is all his fault!” Westley furiously shouts back. “It was his idea! All of it!”

“That boy, Westley,” Cécilia states while coldly looking towards the Malveaux scion, “pushed over my sister, then hit him in the eye,” she nods towards Emmett.

Emmett: Em just looks pained. “I laughed at your dumb jokes, man. That’s all.”

He looks with utter guilt to the sisters, then back to the chaperones. “He was drunk earlier and I ignored it because of who he was. He made some stupid jokes about the girls at McGehee and I didn’t call him out because I didn’t think he was dangerous. He never said anything about this. I’m sorry for not telling him to back off earlier.”

A little bit of admitted, trivial guilt should shut up any doubts they’ll have about him, but they won’t peek behind the curtain. Not when there’s a much more obvious villain in the room.

GM: And Em has told much taller lies than this one.

Westley continues to protest, but the chaperones aren’t buying what he’s selling—or rather, are buying what Em is selling. Principal Strong all but leads a still-protesting Westley away by the ear as she states that if he “wants to come to McGehee so bad, you can wait in my office while I call your parents.” Lyman remarks on how much the young man is embarrassing his family’s name. It seems like the whole crowd has stopped dancing to gawk, whisper, and stare.

The Devillers girls seem less eager to see Westley punished than to avoid the inherently punishing limelight themselves. Mrs. Flores manages to fix up Adeline’s dress with the bobby pin. Cécilia thanks her first, though her younger sister still wants to keep the jacket on, and even more clearly wants to leave. A small clique of friends moves to protectively escort them out. This party is clearly over.

“Thanks for your jacket, and for everything else back there,” Cécilia says to Em. “I’m so sorry that boy Westley hit you. If you want to come home with us I can get you an ice pack.”

Emmett: “It’s really nothing, barely even hurts,” he says, clearly wincing as he does. “Gah, okay, it actually does. Are you sure, though? I don’t want to intrude.”

GM: Cécilia shakes her head emphatically. “No, please. It’s the least we can do to pay you back. I don’t even know how that would have gone if you weren’t there.”

Emmett: He ‘relents,’ nodding. “I don’t need to be paid back. I feel like I owe you two an apology, still.” Still, he follows them, at the heart of their little protective clique. “Maybe a silly question, but can I get you anything?” He asks Adeline. “I can’t even imagine how you’re feeling.”

GM: Adeline shakes her head, still looking a little pale. “Just letting me keep your jacket until we get ‘ome, if you don’t mind. Ah still feel like mah dress is going to slip…”

Cécilia nods along with her sister. “I can think of one more thing, though. What’s your name?”

Emmett: He actually laughs, at that. “Of course, keep the jacket. My name’s Elliott. Friends call me El, though.” The fake name’s a strange, unnecessary gesture, but it’s the only way he’ll have the balls for this. “You’ll be the Devillers, right? Which makes you Cécilia and you… Adeline?”

GM: Both girls nod as Em says their family name.

“We are. And we’re very pleased to meet you, El,” smiles Cécilia.

Emmett: “Oh, don’t worry,” he smiles back. “You’ll get over me soon enough. First impressions can be misleading, right?”

Friday evening, 7 September 2007

Emmett: Em seems to relax as the car drives off, his usual (though cleaned up for the occasion) humor and general extremely likable, trustworthy demeanor returns. What’s that old saying, about how if you boil a frog slowly enough, it’ll never jump out of the water?

In particular, he actually primarily focuses on Adeline, asking her questions about McGehee and working his way up from there to more pleasant, relaxing topics. He’s always been good at this part of things. Before somebody knows you, you can plant all kinds of seeds you can’t in ground already—he mentally cuts himself off. That is such a dad way to think.

GM: Adeline unfortunately doesn’t seem to bite. She’s still embarrassed and even humiliated by how Westley made her dress fall down. The freshman wonders how many boys got a look at her breasts. Cécilia assures her that she was only exposed for a few seconds, she was on the outer edge of the crowd, and it was pretty dark. No one could have seen much. The younger girl’s mood spirits seem little improved for those assurances.

“And… Mrs. Flores definitely saw something,” she sniffs.

Em is forced to conclude (again) that his dad’s way of thinking is a bad way to think.

Emmett: Em actually doubles down on Cécilia’s assurances, saying he “actually didn’t realize your dress had even fallen until a little later.”

Mom has always been the one who could spot him in a fib, after all.

Anyway, it’s not like there was much to see.

GM: The Devillers siblings have more in common with Em’s father than his mother, if their reaction is any indication to go by. They hardly seem to make any mental connection between ‘Elliot’ and the fact Adeline’s breasts were exposed.

“But there were so many people, and Mrs. Flores definitely saw it,” Adeline simply repeats morosely.

Emmett: Yeah, and I bet they’re chalking the dance up as a win. Congratulations, you made some people’s nights. That’s more than most people ever do. Which I guess makes strippers basically saints.

“Mrs. Flores isn’t thinking less of you for getting knocked over by an idiot,” he says, suspecting steering the conversation to the dope might lead her attention away from her (unearned) misery.

GM: “But she saw my breasts,” Adeline just repeats miserably. “‘Er class isn’t going to be the same now. It’s going to be strange.”

Emmett: “You have a best friend, right?”

GM: “Cécilia,” Adeline answers without hesitation.

Emmett: He laughs softly at that. “What’s the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to Cécilia in front of you?” He smiles sympathetically at the other sister. “Sorry for asking. It’s going somewhere, promise. Or whatever, you don’t have to tell me. Just remember it.”

GM: Adeline thinks for a moment, then exclaims with a half-laughed, “Oh mon dieu,” that brings some red to her cheeks.

“You remember how loudly I screamed?” Cécilia smiles.

Emmett: Masturbating in the shower, it’s always masturbating in the shower.

“And you’re the one who’s blushing, not her. Flores right now is hoping you don’t hate her. Trust me.”

Mostly in case Mommy decides she needs to be fired for daring to look upon her precious little pain in the ass’s underage boobs, but still.

GM: “Ah guess so,” Adeline admits. “She was just trying to ’elp.”

Emmett: “Anyway, trust me, it could be worse. I once got locked out of a sauna downtown naked.”

The story that follows when he’s prompted is hilarious, “reluctantly” told, and extremely fun to listen to. It includes such characters as an absurdly self-involved uncle, a pair of rich-yet-distant parents with no idea of how to get rid of their son for date night, and an extremely irresponsible chaperone. It’s easier to tell stories where everything happens just right when none of them ever happened. But then, he doubts he can get as many chuckles than out of the saga of him peeing himself in second grade when Billy Babineaux threw a rock at him for telling too many fat jokes.

It’s always fun telling stories from the driver’s seat, checking the mirror in little glances to catch their smiles and reactions. And those are as important as the lie itself. Once one person starts laughing, the other joins in. Law of social physics.

GM: Em gets smiles and reactions in abundance when he checks in the mirror. The girls laugh and exclaim, “Oh man go!” “Mon dieu!” repeatedly. Adeline even has to dab at her eyes as Em’s smooth tongue proves as consistently adept at smoothing away the night’s embarrassing memories—or rather, convinces the younger girl that such embarrassment is endemic to everyone, and perhaps not even so bad as she might believe.

It strikes Em as funny, though. He’s heard French girls aren’t that uptight about nudity. They’re supposed to sunbathe topless at public beaches.

Emmett: Not that now’s the right time to ask about it. Silly as he finds the younger girl’s worryings, he has enough insight to avoid challenging her sensibilities at the moment. As he finishes, he takes advantage of Adeline’s temporary distraction to flash Cécilia a grin in the rear view mirror. “I think there’s an ice cream place nearby. You two hungry? My treat.”

GM: “Oh, that’s a great idea! Adeline, what do you think?” Cécilia asks.

“Oui, that sounds wonderful!” her younger sister nods.

Emmett: Shocker, even the rich love free ice cream. Though, he’ll admit, least they could do is pretend to want to pay. That’s his jacket she’s wearing. Why does nobody appreciate the little things he does? But, fine, whatever. Curse of being taken at his word.

He treats them to whatever they want. He’s not that hungry and fully intends to go without until he gets inside, at which point his teenage body reminds him that he’s had a stressful night (of sorts) too. Plus, he can’t help himself. He can never get Nutella at home. Not ethically sourced enough for the Professor.
‘Elliott’ turns out to be a fun guy to get ice cream with. This was his favorite part, coming up with a character. Putting a personality together like a jigsaw made out of pieces cut from the backstage of his brains.

He has some ideas going in, obviously. He knows Elliott has to be rich. Maybe not quite as rich as them, but same general league. Can’t have them checking off boxes to ignore him before he’s even won them.

He also knows he can’t be just like them. People don’t fall in love with clones, they fall in love with strangers they feel they’ve known all their lives. He has to be part of a world they respect, even envy, but not one they know. So Elliott’s an artist. He loves painting, though is careful not to talk too much shop, preferring the conversational bits about how much it’s made him grow as a person, how differently it’s taught him to see beauty in people, etc, etc. He watched a movie about a painter last night. It was trash, but good inspiration.

El’s also unusually thoughtful, patient and considerate—chivalry, maybe, or he could just be a genuinely nice person. Em isn’t sure yet which—who knows what the princess likes. He always waits for somebody to finish talking before sliding into a conversation, and always seems to almost repeat ideas back to them, but somehow validating them, making them pop at the same time.

And he’s really, really funny. It’s not his mom or dad’s sense of humor, and it’s not as dirty as what Em normally goes for. There’s a lot more nobility to it, more cheerfulness than viciousness, more wit than raw humor—but he makes it work. There’s always been a part of him that knows how to make people smile. The way he does it is peripheral.

El seems interested in them, too—their everyday lives, what it’s like with just one parent in the house, what they do for fun. When prompted to return the favor, he gives them a tried-and-true story too, which’ll come in handy if they ever ask about his parents. His dad’s a diplomat, often out of the country. His mom actually provides the lion’s share of the family’s wealth through a trust from her father, an incredibly successful actor who conceived her out of wedlock and who Em keeps nameless (“I don’t like being measured by his success,” he says solemnly, with that soulful look in his eyes you can get if you watch enough Matt Damon movies).

“No, but really—I wanna know about you.

GM: Whether one is rich or poor, presenting their true self or masquerading as another, Em is right about one thing:

Everyone loves free ice cream.

It’s an eight-minute detour from McGehee to the nearest Creole Creamery. The girls laugh when Em calls it “such a New Orleans name. Like, it’s what I would name a generic ice cream place with no other clear characteristics.” Cécilia does admit she’s not sure what makes a Creole ice cream place versus a normal ice cream place.

If the ice cream shop has any characteristics distinct to Franco-Spanish culture, none are readily apparent. The shop itself does not seem to care. Its slogan simply but contently proclaims, “Eat ice cream. Be happy.”

The sisters take some time in making up their minds. There’s a lot of great-sounding flavors from Cotton Candy to Lavender Honey and the seasonally unique Green Fairy to Champagne Violette. Cécilia laughs at the “A Chocwork Orange” flavor.

Adeline can’t decide what she wants, but the ice cream parlor has that covered too. She orders the Ice Cream Sampler, with seven scoops of individual flavors that include Lavender Honey, Chocwork Orange, King Cake, La Vie En Rosé (“that’s nice, it’s in French,” Adeline remarks), Lemon Icebox Pie, Boo Berry Pie, and Buttermilk Drop.

Cécilia goes with something more classic, but still less, well, vanilla than vanilla: a strawberry sundae with whipped cream and a cherry on top.

The ice cream people don’t have a nutella-specific item, but after a bit of smooth-talking, they do admit to having some nutella on the premises. He can have that as a condiment on another item of his choice for 50 cents.

Emmett: No hesitation. He gets it added to his scoop of ’Chef’s Perfect Chocolate’.

GM: The sisters readily share their ice cream with one another. They share with Emmett too, if he wants to try some of the more interesting flavors Adeline ordered. Cécilia actually ends up having more of those, while Adeline eats more of her older sibling’s sundae.

The girls continue to laugh at his jokes, and seem to go for the cheerful over vicious approach to his wit. Their everyday lives, they answer, aren’t too different for having one parent in the house—or so they figure. “We’ve never ’ad a father in our lives,” Adeline admits, “so Ah guess we don’t really ’ave much to compare with. But Maman makes it work. And Cécilia really ’elps out, a lot.”

Emmett: “Yeah?” The boy called El asks, raising an impressed eyebrow at the older sister. “What kind of help?”

He works with Cécilia to help take care of Adeline’s sampler, offering up his own scoop of ice cream for scavenging after he’s satisfied with it. A Clockwork Orange was a great movie. Maybe she’ll have some taste after all.

GM: “Oh, it’s not much of anything,” Cécilia waves off. “I mostly just drive them places. And Adeline’s been able to do that too, now that she has her learner’s permit.”

“Oh, you do so much more than that!” Adeline protests, looking back towards Em. “We ‘ave four other sisters… and they’re pretty young. Simmone’s just two, Noëlle’s five, and Yvette and Yvonne are nine. It’s a lot for Maman to manage, and with what Cécilia does, Ah almost don’t even know where to start…”

Emmett: “She seems to think you do a lot,” He half-teases the older sister.

But not as much as this ice cream is doing for my mood. Holy shit, I’m actually having a lot of fun.

GM: Cécilia sounds like she’s about to demur again, but Adeline just talks over her. “Seriously, she does so much together with Maman… less with me, these days, but with the younger ones… she ‘elps them with ’omework, tucks them in, gives them baths, takes them places… all of us, we can go to ’er for just anything. Anything. We can tell ’er anything, and she’ll know what to do. All of that’s still true with Maman, but it’s… different with a sister, no? The others don’t look up to me like that, either. She’s the responsible one, the oldest.”

Cécilia only smiles modestly at the praise. “I think they do go to you for a lot of homework help, actually, Adeline. You’ve always been the smartest one.”

Emmett: “Pretty smart getting the sampler instead of just one flavor,” El agrees before the conversation rolls on to other topics. “Thats good of you, though,” he says to Cécilia. “It takes a lot of love to look after people like that, even if they’re family. More than most people have.” His voice is warm, melting with the sweetness of the scene like hot fudge over her sundae.

GM: Cécilia, in turn, seems to eat both ’desserts’’ sugary content right up as she smiles back at ‘Elliot’.

“That’s so sweet of you to say, El. There’s a lot about them to love, and to want to look after—I think they’re the ones who make it easy on me, more than I make things easier for them, honestly.”

Cécilia presses the ice pack she asked the ice cream people for against his head. It had figured a frozen desserts place would have one of those.

“If you like little kids, I can introduce you to them. They’re all very sweet, too.”

Emmett: For you, sugartits, I’ll make John Gacy look like an underpaid nanny.

Then: Ugh. That one needs work.

“Who doesn’t like kids?”

GM: “Plenty of people, actually,” Adeline says. “But they’re missing out.”

The conversation eventually segues to Em’s own family. Neither girl blinks at his claim that he’s an ambassador’s son. Cécilia, in fact, is interested and asks more. To what country? Has he spent much time abroad?

Emmett: He’s abroad more often than he’s home, including right now. It’s been eight months since Elliott saw him in person. “He’s in Switzerland, actually. He was thinking of being a banker when he was in college, but some wires got crossed and he ended up being more interested in—honestly, he must have told me a dozen times, but I’ve got no head for that kind of thing, numbers and finances and international relations and who’s paying who to do what. I got my looks from him, not much else. Take more after my mom. No head for politics,” he laughs.

GM: Adeline comments that she and her family know a bit about how the Quai d’Orsay (they seem to assume Em knows what that is) works, over the course of their family’s immigration to the US. Their mother knew some people there who were able to make things a lot easier, and they were all so thankful for it. Cécilia talks about how the work of career diplomats like Em’s father is so undervalued (at least in the US) next to the international affairs work that intelligence agencies and the military do.
“Everyone talks about how they live like kings in extravagant houses where they’re always throwing parties,” Cécilia says. “But they really make so many sacrifices to serve and represent their countries.”

“Oui, you remember that woman from the State Department?” Adeline asks.

“She lost her hearing in one ear,” Cécilia relays to El. “After she was posted in Beijing. She became really sick one day from all the pollution and went partly deaf. None of the doctors, even in Hong Kong, could tell her why.”

“There was that other time she mentioned too, in Russia,” adds Adeline. “Where she found that ‘uge growth on ’er son’s eye, and the local doctor said to cure it with beef broth and UV light. So they ‘ad to fly ’ome to the States, to find a doctor for their baby, and the State Department didn’t pay for it because it wasn’t life-threatening.”

Cécilia looks back to El. “I can’t imagine what that must be like. Getting to see so many cultures and places, but it must’ve been very hard in a lot of ways too.”

Emmett: Bit of a risk, this part. But he lets himself take it. He’s always been good at the flashy bits, anyway. He lets a small shadow cross El’s face, just for a moment, before saying carefully, “In some ways. He didn’t want that for us, being dragged around with him and not able to have relationships like you do living in one place. So I just…don’t see him a lot of the time. I actually wonder sometimes whether he likes being alone.” He blinks as of remembering where he is, who he’s talking to. “But wait, tell me about coming to America. That must have been crazy.” The segue isn’t clumsy enough to be embarrassing, but he’s pretty sure they’ll see it.

He hears the thoughts like a voiceover narration, picking up where his line falls.

You might be smart, Cici. You definitely talk smart. I bet Lena would love you, like clever people do. But I’m better than clever, I’m dramatic. Because even though you can think your way out of believing me, you don’t want to.

Build mystery, investment, pain. Sell her a dream.

Wait, is Creole Creamery playing Mr. Sandman?

GM: Ice cream places always play the wholesome, old-fashioned hits.

GM: Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream
Make him the cutest that I’ve ever seen
Give him the word that I’m not a rover
Then tell him that his lonesome nights are over

El can see the sympathy and even sadness welling in Cécilia’s clear blue eyes as she reaches across the table to touch his arm.

“I’m sorry, El. That must also be very hard for you.”

Emmett: He twists the grin he feels coming into a nervous laugh. “It is what it is. Seriously, don’t dwell on it. I’d rather get to know you.”

GM: Cécilia nods and seems content to let the matter go… at least for now. After all, as Em well knows, smart people just never seem to let some things drop.

She takes another spoonful of her strawberry sundae before answering, “We moved to America two years ago. Not that long for Adeline or me, I suppose, but for Simmone it’s been her whole life. She was just a baby when we got on the plane.”

Emmett: “That must have been strange for you two, after growing up French. Why’d your mom decide to make the move? Right around Katrina, too.”

GM: “Oh, Katrina was why,” Cécilia says.

They tell Em in brief about their mother’s reasons for moving.

Emmett: He listens while nodding thoughtfully, actually just happy to have a moment to think. Making up so much so quick is dizzying. It’s like a creative rush, some kind of weird natural high, like running gave him sometimes (not that he had particularly enjoyed track outside of that. Mostly it gave him an extremely convenient alibi for any given absence).

“Sounds like she really loves NOLA. What about y’all?” He drawls out the Cajun accent he perfected during the summers in the bayou.

GM: “Oh, so do we,” Cécilia nods.

“We love everything Maman loves,” Adeline adds.

“France has problems of its own,” Cécilia continues. “Everyone back home is very political and always talking about the government’s problems. It’s involved in so much more of our lives than here. But that’s not the same, either, next to a city that didn’t even have electricity, food, running water, schools, or any of the other thousand one necessities we take for granted as parts of modern life. It really feels like our family has been able to make a difference here. It’s incredible how far the city has come in just two years.”

Emmett: The storm hadn’t affected him much personally, but he remembers the ruined streets when he came back, the surges of disheveled homeless all along the street. “Can’t argue with that,” he agrees.

He steers the conversation on into school and hobbies, part of him ready to enter the tempo of sudden invention again, and another part actually interested in what this bizarrely clever—seriously, did she hear herself?—person does for fun.

GN: Cécilia admits she doesn’t have a lot of free time. Outside of school, she keeps busy with her volunteer work for her mother’s charities, her extracurriculars, and of course her family. Dances and parties like these are some of the only chances she has to just unwind and not think of anything past having fun. Adeline looks a little guilty at that.

Cécilia is quick to assure her sister that they were right to get out of there. There will always be other dances. But opportunities for her (“and of course El”) to be there for her younger sister “when you really need someone” are much rarer—and should never be turned down.

Adeline seems mollified by that and goes back to her ice cream as Cécilia answers ‘El’ that she still finds a lot of things in her daily life fun, even if it’s usually towards a purpose. She sings and does ballet (most of her family does) and loves that. She plays tennis, and sometimes does horseback riding. She’s played some polo and liked that. She also likes boating and swimming. The family sometimes goes out to Grand Isle on their yacht—it’s a wonderful vacation spot. Vacationing abroad too. Her family goes back to France at least a few times a year, and she loves just strolling the beaches and walking through historic streets and chateaus that all but breathe their age.

And of course, she loves doing things with her sisters, from “experimenting” in the kitchen, to watching movies together, to further amassing and playing with their Beanie Baby collection.

“So many things are better when you do them with family,” she smiles.

Emmett: God, she is such a cliché—but he’s kind of into it, finding himself smiling as she presses the ice pack to his face. The history stuff he nods along to, he doesn’t expect he’ll be able to fake an interest there convincingly—but even rich girls will give you something to talk about, if you listen long enough. The Beanie Baby thing is quirky and cute enough to earn some more affectionate teasing. He readily agrees about family, though: some of Elliott’s happiest memories involve both his parents and older brother (the one studying music in New York), either playing cards after dinner as a family or watching TV together. He does ask, more out of real curiosity than strategic questioning, what kind of movies the six sisters watch together (“Only because I’m trying to think of one that seems like it would be smart enough to impress you,” he half-kids).

He also sees an opportunity, and takes it. “You seem like the kind of person who has a lot to say,” he tells Cécilia easily. It isn’t even a lie, even if the dripping appreciation the compliment is layered in is even more artificially sweet than stuff they’re slurping down. “You deserve more time to figure out what you want.”

He makes that assertion matter-of-factly, his looks and smile and too-nice eyes all whispering her to accept the small progression of intimacy.

GM: Cécilia looks towards her sister. “Ad, do you need to use the bathroom? I know you were drinking a lot of punch back there.”

Adeline nods. Most of the trio’s ice cream is gone by now. “Oui, good point. Ah’ll be back in a bit.”

“Oh, actually, do you want to change into some flats?” She opens her purse and smiles. “Getting ice cream made me forget, sorry.”

Adeline resolutely shakes her head as if to say Cécilia doesn’t need to say sorry. “Do you want them, actually? You were doing more dancing than me.”

Cécilia shakes her head back, but not so emphatically. “It wasn’t that much more. I’ll be fine.”

“All right, if you’re sure.” Adeline sits down, leaves her heels in her sister’s purse, puts on the flats, and heads to the bathroom.

Cécilia watches her go, then turns back to Em. She toys with the spoon in her mostly-finished sundae before saying, “El… this evening’s been really nice. It was really nice for someone else to be the responsible one swooping in to the rescue. But… it feels like you’re trying to make it, or maybe yourself, into something it’s not, in some ways.”

She looks up from her sundae at him.

“I know what that’s like, trying to make things nicer for other people all of the time. I really appreciate it when somebody else wants to do that for me.”

She holds up a forestalling hand when she sees the look on his face.

“I’d like it to go on. But I am saying… you don’t have to make yourself, this,” she gestures around at the table with the trio’s mostly-eaten ice cream, “into something even nicer than it really is.”

Her voice is soft as she looks at him and says, “You can be real with me, too.”

Emmett: Panic sets in once she sets the obvious trap. He already knows where he dropped the ball, it was that damn last push. She wants them alone. Could be a good sign, but he needs to adjust to the new situation, quick—

—then she’s doing that thing, the slow explanation, the inevitable disappointment, some cushioning and then the ‘but’ rushing up like rocks at a bottom of a cliff—

—and then she does something weird. No “thanks, but no thanks.” No friendzoning (he hates the word, clunky and shiny and everything wrong with the people around him).

He’s been caught in a lie—it happens. He’s not perfect (yet), and he supposes it is technically possible for him to fail, even if only in a cool, enviable sort of way. But she sees him lying, or at least the shape of his deception. And then she’s worried about him.

But it doesn’t feel like she’s playing herself. It’s just that she sees him doing nice things and wants to be nice back. And it’s stupid, it’s so stupid and it’s more perfect a setup than he could have come up with himself, but for some reason that idiotic act of selflessness flickers down his spine like a chill from the still-cold ice pack.

It takes him a moment to realize she’s stopped talking.

‘Elliott’ finally clears his throat.

“I appreciate that, Cécilia. Seriously.” He scratches at the back of his neck, thoughts rushing, and then he has it. “It’s just… it might sound weird, but I actually feel more invested in what happened tonight because I don’t normally have anybody to be nice for. Not really. I have parents that aren’t looking and money I don’t have to do anything for, and it honestly—it fucks me up a little. And I’m tired of feeling like I don’t have to be there for other people, because somebody you need to be there for is somebody who at least wants you there. So I guess I kind of… wanted to be that. For somebody. Once.”

Throughout the small, intense monologue, he meets her gaze intently, drinking those eyes in, letting her see what she expects to see in them; a well of passion barely restrained by a stubborn, Cajun gruffness. Sensitivity and machismo, like salt and vinegar.

Where the fuck is his Oscar?

GM: Perhaps it’s waiting for him with a beautiful woman. It’s always a beautiful woman who hands off those gold-painted little trophies.

Maybe she’s even the one sitting in front of him.

It’s like that brief-yet-eternal moment between when the announcer says, “And the winner is…” and the cut to their grinning face before Cécilia finally responds,

“That’s sweet, El.” Her smile seems equal parts touched, tired, and even a little rueful as she stirs what’s left of her sundae. “Like a lot of this evening.”

“If you wanted to be nice to me… you did that. You definitely did that, when you swooped in with Adeline, earlier. I’m always the responsible one with my sisters. It was nice for someone besides Maman to take just a little, or a lot, of that off my shoulders. Really nice.”

Her smile turns a touch more tired, and even wistful. “I know that’s not always easy, though… and maybe it is to you, if you don’t usually get to be the knight in shining armor. But I’d still like to get to know the guy underneath. I know polishing the armor can be a lot of work…”

Her expression trails off as she looks towards the womens’ bathroom, then returns to that same fond but tired smile as she meets Em’s eyes again.

“I’ll make sure Adeline returns your jacket, once we’re home. I think she just doesn’t want to feel very exposed right now.”

Emmett: “Yeah, I’d imagine,” he says softly. “That was pretty awful, what Westley did. I’m glad we were able to make her feel better. About the armor… I don’t mean to be hard to know. But maybe I have a lot to learn about relaxing, too. It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything that felt this fun.” He taps absentmindedly at his now-empty glass bowl with his spoon. “It might be nice to do it again. Under less crazy circumstances.”

He lets that one hang out there, for her to do with as she pleases.

But he’s pretty sure she’ll do what he wants her to.

GM: Cécilia’s expression dims at the mention of Westley, but warms again at Em’s idea.

“I think that might be nice too.”

Emmett: Elliot smiles back.


Caroline V, Chapter XVIII
The Dungeon

“Never again shall I sire!”
Augusto Vidal

Date ?

GM: A cavalcade of monsters gathers about the stocks and gallows. Caroline has been here before, even if she hasn’t been here.

Moonlight glints off metal spokes as the executioner turns and tugs on the old wagon wheel, making sure it is firmly anchored axle-down into the earth below. He takes the criminal by the arm and straps him, spread-eagle, to the wooden wheel. He dangles on the platform a few feet above ground.

The executioner picks up a rusted iron bar and delivers a crushing blow to the condemned’s hand—then to his foot, his ankle, his forearm. The executioner methodically breaks each one of the prisoner’s bones. No one would mistake his howls for a human sound, even without the fangs protruding from his slavering mouth. The crowd watches attentively.

When the executioner is done, he hoists the wheel upright. The condemned’s mangled body droops from the restraints, while blood pools from his ears and nose. His maddened cries go on, and on, and on. The executioner finally ends the tedium with a blade drawn across his throat, and the ’man’s’ body ages decades into a withered mummy.

Caroline: If she were truly here, Caroline would grit her teeth against the ghastly sight. She recognizes the wheel, this execution method, though she’d never put the time into visualizing how it was actually performed. The idea of it was brutal enough. The execution of it is…. far worse.

If she were truly here, she would hold one balled hand before her mouth, and try to ignore the unmistakable smell of vitae in the air. The effect it has on her in the face of this barbarism—the wholly biological reaction to the sight and smell of that most intoxicating substance.

GM: The smell of spilled vitae reaches Caroline as if from a great distance, and for once she does not feel the stirring of any Beast in her breast. It is well she does not. A line of prisoners awaits their own grim judgment. Some are shackled. Others have had their hands lopped off. A few do not even stand, but have had wooden stakes driven through their breasts. Some have expressions of rage, but far more, simple resignation. All know they are damned.

Each of their crimes is read aloud. Some are executed in the same brutal manner as the first man. Others, instead, have stakes pounded through their chests and nooses fastened around their necks. It is an honorless death. An ignoble death. It is a death fit for common criminals. Yet none sputter and choke as their sharp drops come to sudden stops. They merely hang, motionless and insensate. The crowd watches each ‘hanging’ with rapt eyes. Some hungering. A few even pitying.

Finally, but one prisoner is left.

Caroline: Caroline doesn’t know what this is… but she can imagine.

GM: He wears the same shackles and is dressed in the same torn and threadbare clothing. He kneels, like the others, but holds his head high. His dark-haired and tan-complexioned features are Spanish, well-bred, and etched with the haughtiness of aristocracy that endures in all places and eras. Two fangs protrude from his mouth.

The steady tread of a figure’s wellington boots approaches his side. The condemned vampire flinches, but does not avert his gaze.

The figure who looks down upon him is tall, broad of shoulder, and garbed in a midnight-black archaic military dress uniform: collared tunic, breeches, gorget, and epaulettes. Medals gleam over the sash across his chest, while a basket-hilted sword hangs from his hip. A gold signet ring set with a ruby adorns his finger. The blood-red gem seems to pulse and glisten as he walks, hungrily devouring nearby light.

His features are crisp, Mediterranean, and utterly still, like a marble statue by one of the old masters brought to life. His slick black hair appears wet, and his mustache is trimmed into a uniformly straight vandyke. His gaze carries the weight of centuries and civilizations swept aside by time’s inexorable march. The eyes dominate the face: cold, fanatical, implacable. Those who stare too long feel dizzy, their mouths warm with the taste of blood. The eyes are primal and inhuman and they are strong. They burn with the fury of heaven and the fire of hell.

And they are wroth. They are wroth.

Caroline: Caroline stares at him for only the second time in her existence—at least that she can remember. It is, however, not the first time she’s seen him in his rage. It’s every bit as intimidating tonight—or whenever this is—as it was when she saw it unleashed on Smith and his entire line.

GM: Few can meet that dread gaze, lest it consume them. Most do not try.

One does.

The condemned vampire’s presumption costs him much. He snaps his face away as if struck. A single strangled word escapes his cracked and broken lips. There is a rawness to it, a simultaneously mournful and furious agony that Caroline knows only too well:



Vidal does not once look at him as he utters to the crowd:

“Es muy difícil, hijos míos, prescribirte el castigo.
de la quema,
de exsanguinación,
de decapitación,
de tortura,
de parálisis,
de la sundeath.
Tú eres mi hijo: solo entre el resto de la existencia, eres mi único compañero.
Para siempre nos encerraremos en la manera en que los padres están unidos a sus hijos y los hijos a sus padres.
Y sin embargo, voy a erradicar la mala semilla. Voy a eliminar lo peor de ti. Podaré mi árbol oscuro, como me enseñó mi padre, Adán.”

(“‘It is very hard, my children, to prescribe for you the punishment
of burning,
of exsanguination,
of beheading,
of torture,
of paralysis,
of the sundeath.
You are my childer: alone among the rest of existence, you are my only companions.
Forever will we be locked in the way that fathers are bonded to their sons and sons to their fathers.
And yet, I will root out the bad seed. I will weed out the worst of you. I will prune my dark tree, in the manner that my father, Adam, taught me.’”

Vidal lapses into silence, as it to allow the crowd time to fully consider and reflect upon his words. Finally, he speaks again:

“Nuestro Padre Oscuro fue dado demasiado al sentimiento.”

(“Our Dark Father was given overmuch to sentiment.”)

The executioner does not approach this final captive. It is Philip Maldonato, dressed in archaic garb of similar function to his prince, who guides Caroline’s brother-in-blood forward, takes his arm so that he may kneel with some grace, and finally lowers his head upon the chopping block.

Vidal draws his sword. The blade gleams against the moonlight, dented by obvious war and use, yet still sharp and hungry as any Cainite’s fang.

Caroline: It’s hard to watch. The death of her brother-in-blood. His murder by their sire. The fury and anger behind this oh-so public and certain death. She doesn’t know this man with his head upon the block, but she’s been in his position more than once already. She feels it.

She wants to look away, but she can’t. She doesn’t want this vision burned into her mind, but it feels oh so wrong to deny the memory of it. And there’s a reason she’s here.

GM: Vidal still faces the raptly attentive crowd as he pronounces:

“Saber que todos los miembros de la Arquidiócesis de Nueva Orleans están igualmente sujetos a sus leyes. Saber que todos los soberanos de los Vástagos y los Kines gobiernan por la gracia de Dios. Levantarse de la mano contra el príncipe es levantarse de la mano contra la rebelión contra Dios.”

(“Know that all within the Archdiocese of New Orleans are equally subject to its laws. Know that all sovereigns of Kindred and kine rule by the grace of God. To raise hand in rebellion against one’s prince is to raise hand in rebellion against God.”)

“Emmanuel Costa, por los delitos de traición, te condeno a muerte definitiva.”

(“Emmanuel Costa, for the crime of treason, I hereby sentence you to final death.”)

Vidal finally looks upon his childe—but only long enough for his sword to descend. The blade sheers through flesh, bone, and muscle. Costa’s head cleanly tumbles into the basket set below. Its stoically set expression perhaps attains some final measure of dignitas as body and head alike rapidly decay before Caroline’s eyes, as though they’ve been left outside to rot for weeks.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Caroline: Caroline knew the outcome before the prince spoke his first words. The seneschal had spoken to her of the execution of the prince’s childe at his own hand once, not that long ago. And yet, right up until the blade descended, a part of her had hoped for another outcome. Had hoped for anything but this. Hoped in vain.

This is the sire whose mercy she is to throw herself upon. Whom she is to hope will rescind her death sentence. Who must overlook her crimes and errors.

A chill runs through the dead woman. A vision from the past, or a portent of her future?

GM: As Caroline ponders that terrible question, the prince raises his still-wet, still-dripping sword. He turns his black gaze upon the crowd. His words ring out as hard and cold as steel against steel.

“Nada bueno ha venido de mi Sangre.”

(“No good has come of my Blood.”)

“Nunca más volveré a otorgar el Regalo Oscuro a otro.”

(“Never again shall I bestow the Dark Gift upon another.”)

“Esto lo juro, por mi Réquiem y honor como un niño de Ventrue: por Longinus el Profeta Oscuro: por la Virgen María, por Nuestro Señor Jesucristo, y por el Dios Todopoderoso:”

(“This I swear, by my Requiem and honor as a childe of Ventrue: by Longinus the Dark Prophet: by the Virgin Mary, by Our Lord Jesus Christ, and by Almighty God:”)

“¡Nunca más lo haré!”

(“Never again shall I sire!”)

Caroline: LIAR, Caroline screams at her sire, her very existence giving truth to the words.

GM: A slender finger traces the contours of an ivory chess board.

It slowly travels across the board’s time-worn pieces. There are no figural representations of humans or animals: merely finger-sized shards of bone carved into faceless circular pieces. A painter’s delicate hand has left faded red and cyan designs over their bodies. There are no blacks and whites in this game.
The long finger comes to rest upon one of the tallest, most ornately-painted figures.

The other side of the board is empty. It is bereft of pieces. There were ones there, earlier. Two bishops. A knight. Many pawns. All removed with struggle and sacrifice, but nothing his side could not endure. Their position in the game is now unassailable.

The finger’s owner peers into the darkness, and seeing nothing worries him more than seeing anything at all.

GM: A new board is set up. This one is not so favorable as the first. There are pieces on the opposing side, but they are few in number, and have hardly any pawns.

The finger’s owner frowns and castles his rooks.

GM: The game has been reset. His king is in check, and for all the superiority of their pieces, they now play on the defensive. They had expected this, and how complicated the second king on their side would make the game. This stage of it will pass. They had even expected the bold new knight emerging from the new ranks of enemy pawns.

But they had not expected to lose their rooks.

GM: The game has been reset once more, as they expected. The king that proved such a burden is gone. The enemy’s pawns are gone. The knight’s threat has been contained.

But the game is no longer the same. Everything’s place is different. And new pieces stand amidst the enemy squares.

He moves his side’s new rook, and it topples the pawn-surrounded knight. Its threat is ended for good.

His hand carefully traces their side’s second queen, then freezes.

GM: Time marches on, and the board shifts and grows. There are not two sides to it. There are three, and there may be even more, each with its own pieces. None are wholly uniform in color, save the black pawn. It presence worries him more than he would ever say.

The game is fundamentally different now. These rival sides seriously beset his king. He cannot say this too shall pass.

He traces his finger across their knights and bishops. In those pieces lie their hope. His hand traces his bishops, then finally sets upon the knight. It jumps across the board, scattering rival pieces as it goes. He watches with bated breath, for the memory of breathing has not left him. He watches, and the knight topples over. The black pawn is now a knight. He follows its path with growing apprehension.

The old rules are gone.

GM: The board looks very bad now. His pieces remain dominant, but there are many sides now, with their own pieces, all carved out in the shadow of three great players. Pieces advance to and fro in dizzying move and counter-move. Sometimes his side wins and sometimes they lose. The rival sides possess true kings. The black knight has grown, and takes up an entire two squares.

His gaze rests upon the bishops, for in them lie his hopes.

GM: Augusto Vidal broods from a throne-liked chair, surveying the drowned and shattered wreckage of what was once his city. A sword rests upon the conference table, or what is left of one. Viscous black blood has reduced it to little more than slag on a hilt.

An equally grim- and weathered-looking man trades words with him. His icy eyes are dark and hooded.

“Es hätte kein größeres Opfer verlangt werden können. Es hätte kein größeres Opfer gebracht werden können.”

Caroline does not speak his crisp-sounding German. But she understands.

(“No greater sacrifice could have been asked. No greater sacrifice could have been made.”)

Caroline: She studies the stranger, the sword, and her sire’s countenance. This is not the appearance of a man that has found victory.

GM: “Wir danken Ihnen für Ihre Worte, Ihre Exzellenz und Ihre Taten,” Maldonato replies to the stranger in flawless German.

(“We thank you for your words, Your Excellency—and your aid.”)

“Das bevorstehende Konklave ist bereits vielversprechend,” he continues.

(“The imminent conclave already shows great promise.”)

“Politik ist nutzlose Ablenkungen,” the stranger replies sourly.

(“Politics are a useless diversion.”)

“Es fehlt Ihnen nicht an Gesellschaft in diesem Gefühl,” Maldonato answers.

(“You do not lack for company in that sentiment.”)

Vidal does not speak. He waits for the stranger to depart, and for Maldonato to remain.

He will allow no one else hear him scream.

GM: The finger’s owner rests upon a water-drenched board. It has been swept almost entirely clean of pieces and is even more empty than during the game’s lost opening moves. The pieces will return in time. It will be less than an eyeblink before they do, to those who have played for as long as him.

But he is not certain he will like this new order.

The rooks are gone. The bishops are gone. The knight is gone. The first queen is gone. All of the remaining pieces are flawed and dented, influenced by other hands, or still but pawns. It is with no little trepidation that he observes the black knight now takes up an entire three squares. The storm has been very good to the black knight.

And another, new piece. A queen. It is familiar…

His finger hovers above the board, and finally settles upon a handful of pawns. He slowly begins to nudge them forth.

Monday night, 7 September 2015, AM

GM: Philip Maldonato wears a gray dishdasha. He’s in the ceramic-tiled garden where he passed judgment upon Caroline. He sits upon the same bench where they sat. He looks as if he could sit on that bench for a thousand years. He looks as if he has been sitting on that bench for a thousand years. Four different ivory chessboards sit upon antique wooden tables. This game is far too complex to be modeled by a single game.

Sorrow fills his eyes as he traces a long finger across one of the pawns. It stands directly in the path of a towering, blood-red queen. Its carved face resembles a demonic figure with ram’s horns and pupil-less eyes. The pawn looks small. Helpless. Several other pawns stand safely behind it. Only one other has advanced as many squares, but it’s been painted a cyan shade that no longer mirrors its neighbors’.

“My agent reports she has been taken to the lower-most circle,” Maldonato states aloud. “I have failed.”

His gaze lingers upon the fallen queen, knight, bishops, and discolored pawn.

“The evidence is now incontrovertible.”

Caroline: Caroline stares at the scene with building anticipation. Centuries have passed, she realizes. She’s watched year after year of the invisible battles fought among New Orleans’ Kindred. All fought for, all leading to the present. To this night. To her Embrace.

Her heart would pound in her chest if it hadn’t laid still since her death. Instead she feels she would be still as a statue, not even breathing.

GM: Maldonato looks towards the garden’s foursquare-patterned charbagh fountain. His silence is broken only by the water’s gentle flow and the chirping birds nested among the full-blooming fruit trees.

Caroline’s imagined stillness is oddly contrasted by the seneschal’s as he closes his eyes. His chest softly rises and falls as he breathes, in what can only be a conscious and deliberate action for a Cainite of his years. Jasmine, lilac, rose, and a dozen other fragrances hang heavy in the summer night’s warm air. At last he speaks.

“These are worthy circumstances to die.”

The weight of the world looks as though it bears down upon the ancient warrior’s shoulders as he rises from the bench and calls his sword to hand. The waiting of a thousand years has come to an end.

The shadowy presence observing the old Moor finally speaks. Its voice is deep as the grave. It echoes with power that chills Caroline to the marrow of her dead bones.

“We may only observe.”

Maldonato places a wax-sealed envelope upon the first chessboard.

“You will have my gratitude should this reach his hand.”

The seneschal winds his pocket watch, then intones a prayer in Arabic as he slashes the crescent-shaped scimitar through the air. Its path tears a rent in the fabric of reality, pitch black and fathomless. The rent leaches color wherever it touches and leaves behind achromatic gray. It reeks with a stench that is fouler than foul, yet sickly-sweet in a way that somehow makes Caroline’s dead loins race.

Maldonato’s gaze is as somber as a man watching his own funeral, but his stride does not slow as he steps into the rent. The darkness swallows him whole. The shadowy presence is left alone in the garden.

Caroline: Caroline grinds her teeth as the seneschal vanishes into the rift towards a battle unknown, fighting her own internal war. The more she sees the less she knows, the fewer certainties are true, and the greater the rising conflict.


She snaps her gaze to the shadowy figure. There’s more to this moment. There’s more here. She needs to know.

But not as much as she needs to know where the ancient Moor has gone.

GM: The bench sits empty. Perhaps Caroline imagined that it was anything otherwise.

But the Ventrue has little time to ponder such matters. The rift’s pitch-black depths seem to bleed into the surrounding realityscape like oil over water. Caroline knows, by some primal, id-driven instinct, beyond even her Beast’s urgings, that she should not follow. There is nothing in those forsaken depths but darkness and suffering. Evil, if she believes in that.

But against all instinct and common sense, it beckons to her.

Like that innocuous impulse one sometimes has to jump when staring down from a great height, some hidden recess of her mind breaks its silence to whisper—why not?

Why do people do anything that doesn’t make sense? Why do they do anything that’s wrong or stupid? It’s a quiet, subtle instinct so innocent in its query that it slides underneath sense and logic like water under a door’s crack. It doesn’t matter how thick the barrier is. There’s always a crack.

If that instinct could exist invisibly within her, what else lies hidden within her soul? Does she even know her own soul? Does she know who she truly is?

The rift promises those answers. It promises more. It promises truth.

Caroline could not turn back even if she wanted to.

But if she did, she might see how the darkness has already swallowed her too.


DISCLAIMER: The next portion of this log contains obscene and sexually explicit images that are intended for ADULTS ONLY. If you are under the age of 18, if such material offends you, or if it is illegal to view such material in your community, then you should not click the below link.

If you over the age of 18 and want to read the next portion of this log, click here to read it externally over Google Docs.


Caroline V, Chapter XVII
Treacherous Meetings

“Everyone’s owned, Ms. Malveaux. If we’re lucky we know by who.”
Roger Ferris

Wednesday night, 16 December 2015, PM

GM: Caroline’s next stop is the Alystra. She is received by the same handsome-featured ghoul who greeted her during her first visit to the riverboat casino. The ghoul inquires as to her business with “Prince Guilbeau,” but asks for no further details if she states the matter is a sensitive as well as urgent one. He does, however, regret to inform Caroline that the soonest opening within his domitor’s schedule is five nights from now.

Fortunately, Caroline held her first planning conference with Anthony Brodowski concerning the Windsor Court’s lands not too long ago and exchanged phone numbers with Marcel’s childe. She calls him and agrees to cede all credit for the idea, should Prince Vidal adopt it, if he can arrange an earlier meeting with his sire. The other Ventrue calls back later and tells Caroline that he can get her in to see Prince Guilbeau on the 18th, two nights from now.

Caroline: She thanks him and tells him that if he can get her in tomorrow she can further sweeten the pot for either him or his sire with a minor boon—though she understands if he’s unable to make that work.

GM: The younger Ventrue gets back to Caroline an hour later. For the price of a minor boon owed to himself, he can get Caroline in to see his sire at 1 AM tomorrow. That is the earliest he can do.

Caroline: The heiress readily agrees and thanks her clanmate.

GM: Her attempt to secure an audience with Pierpont McGinn are less successful. The older Ventrue’s herald receives her courteously enough at his Uptown mansion, but actually declines the neonate’s boon. Her domitor’s time is completely booked up for the next several weeks. She should ask again in January if she still desires audience with the gerousiastis.

Caroline: Caroline thanks her for her time and consideration, and asks that she pass on her respects to the elder Ventrue when the opportunity presents itself. It’s a setback, though not an immediately lethal one.

She has some hope that Guilbeau might be able to attract his peer’s attention to the matter after their meeting tomorrow if she can sell her case to the once-prince well enough. Father Malveaux announced at the last Board meeting that he was visiting Cardinal Arechavaleta in Corpus Christi on Sanctified business, but given that his route passed through Houston, he was open to traveling with other clanmates who sought to further ties with the clan’s Texan branches. She recalls Becky Lynne Adler and Roxanne Gerlette both taking up his offer.

She weighs the merits of trying to bring Matheson in via Gabriel Hurst, with whom she’s had clearer lines of communication, but almost immediately dismisses it. If nothing else it would almost certainly require a visit to the banished elder, and despite the generosity of several deals struck with him through Adler she’s far from certain he’s content to let their past experiences go unpunished.

GM: Caroline calls her mother next. Claire says she can see her in several days. Caroline drops hints about Ferris “receiving other offers,” which prompts her mother to move things up to tomorrow. She nevertheless appears in an ill temper when she lets the Ventrue in to her hotel suite.

“This had better be important, Caroline. I’m not going to keep dropping everything like this whenever you want to talk.”

Caroline: Because it wasn’t important last time, Caroline doesn’’t quite snarl in her mind.

“Ferris is taking the Albino’s blood,” she states bluntly. She hands her mother a manila folder. “He’s had his team breaking into my ‘home’, tapping my devices, and investigating known crimes related to Kindred activities. He also knows of your own dealings with the supernatural.” Inside the folder are several pages and photos printed out from the vast array of documents stolen from the investigation into ‘Carolinegate’.

“I thought you should know,” she doesn’t quite declare with a bit of obvious hurt behind the worlds.

GM: It’s then that Caroline’s phone goes off. The caller ID is Ferris.

Caroline: “Speak of the devil,” she observes.

GM: “Better the one we know,” her mother states.

Caroline: Caroline answers with an, “Hello, Roger.”

GM: “Ms. Malveaux,” sounds the ghoul’s voice. “I’ve talked with the new boss. He’s willing to deal.”

Caroline: “Oh?” comes Caroline’s expectant response.

GM: “Meet me at the Corner Club and we can talk. He wants an answer by nightfall tomorrow.”

Caroline: “11 PM,” Caroline replies. “And Roger, please don’t try anything we would both regret.”

GM: “Good advice, Ms. Malveaux. You should follow it.”

The line clicks.

Caroline: Caroline stuffs the phone back into the purse she’s brought to this meeting (she can hardly believe she used to carry one all the time), and turns her attention back to her mother.

GM: Her mother looks back to her. She hasn’t yet paged through the manila folder, but her brow furrows. “To what purpose is all of this, Caroline? You said the Albino had made peace with you.”

She gives a dry, wordless sound. It’s not quite a laugh. It’s far from a laugh. “No, I’ve answered my own question. Of course he hasn’t made peace. None of your kind do.”

Caroline: Caroline takes the not-laugh like a slap in the face. “Roger said he wanted my open ended service to him in exchange for dealing with the matter,” she replies stiffly. “I told him to pound sand.”

GM: “But something changed that, evidently.”

Caroline: “I’ll deal with the personal side of it. I just thought you should know which team Roger was playing for.”

For your safety, she doesn’t say.

GM: Her mother sighs. “I suppose it was inevitable the Albino would get to him eventually.”

Caroline: “I wish he hadn’t, but Roger was clear in no uncertain terms that he was happy for it, and that his own goal was to become a vampire,” she continues.

GM: Claire’s expression grows notably stony, but it doesn’t seem to interrupt her as she says, “There’s some hours until this meeting. Why don’t we sit down and discuss the details?”

Caroline: “I don’t want you to feel my problems are your problems,” Caroline answers, perhaps defensively. “I’ve made enough other ones for you.”

GM: Claire shakes her head. “The Albino has been my problem since before you were born. I’m frankly surprised he didn’t contaminate Ferris with his blood any sooner.”

Caroline: Caroline’s expression shifts between a contemplative frown and a lower lip biting thoughtfulness. “All right.”

She sits with her mother and briefly outlines her previous conversation with Roger, and his promise to speak with Father Malveaux to seek out a ‘better compromise’ in the form of a set price, and his proposal for a meeting tonight. “The Albino is out of New Orleans until the weekend—or at least is supposed to be.”

GM: “You don’t believe that he is?” Claire asks.

Caroline: “I think he was, but I could see him returning early depending on the story Roger sold him.”

GM: “Perhaps,” her mother speculates. “Roger sounds as if he was offering an alliance, of sorts. What do you intend to do at this meeting?”

Caroline: “We’ll see what he as to offer. If it’d mild enough… I’ll consider it. Otherwise I have another meeting at 1 AM with another more influential Ventrue that I’ll lay out the situation with and ask to mediate. If that happens… well, I imagine it would probably go rather poorly for Roger, as a start.”

GM: “Perhaps,” her mother repeats. “Your kind have a way of always managing to do whatever’s worst for anyone.”

Caroline: “He’s the obvious out, that allows the Albino to save face about continuing this project after publicly burying the hatchet when I kowtowed to him.”

GM: Claire looks unconvinced, but brings up a number of further salient topics.

If she isn’t interested in Roger’s offer, what does she intend to do? Capture him? Wait until later?

Would acquiring harder leverage over Roger be worthwhile? He has a young daughter here in the city who they could get to.

Finally, what manner of compromise does she hope to achieve with the other leeches? If the Albino sanctioned Roger’s activities, he could simply deny them. Does Caroline have proof? If she does, and assuming the other leeches take action against the Albino, how does she expect him to react to her?

Caroline: Caroline addresses them in turn—the meeting with Roger tonight gives her the opportunity to gather direct evidence of the Albino—or at least Roger—pitching to her blackmail for events after they made ‘peace’, but also gives Roger an opportunity to have found an offer that helps to resolve this matter and perhaps keeps him in the clear.

She still feels some affection for the man she used to practice her Arabic with, among other things, and if she can keep him out of the line of fire and potentially open as an ally within the Albino’s ranks, so much the better.

As for his daughter, Caroline is shocked to hear her mother suggest that idea. She’s familiar with Roger’s family situation, but the idea of hurting innocent children to get leverage over him makes her more than a little disgusted. Is she seriously suggesting that as an option? If so, her opinion of her mother’s ruthlessness shifts several steps to the right.

GM: “I’m not suggesting we should harm a twelve-year-old girl, Caroline. Roger’s perception and our reality are two different things.”

Her mother’s eyes harden. “But if I’m ever forced to choose between destroying someone else’s family or sacrificing our own, I wouldn’t hesitate. And I should hope that you wouldn’t either.”

Caroline: Caroline agrees with both ideas.

As to her long term plan here, she sees several options. The first of which is, assuming Roger can offer a real alternative that doesn’t involve being under the Albino’s thumb forever, she might accept that, rather than start a conflict. Another is, if the other Ventrue refuse to take any position, potentially throwing in the rest of the way with the opposition power bloc in the city. The last would be to simply heighten scrutiny on that relationship in the immediate future to the point that it would be socially very difficult for the Albino to actively make a move against her, which would give her more time to build connections, allies, and influence of her own… and speaking of…

She digs out a silver coin and lays it on the table between them.

“If this is the genuine article, and contains what I hope it does, that may change the calculus on certain matters.”

GM: Claire surveys the coin warily. “I’m still not entirely certain what it will do, Caroline. It might give you more information to work with. It could also result in you missing either or both of these meetings, though that’s entirely speculation on my part.”

Caroline: “Abélia was very clear that she wanted the identity Caroline Malveaux alive, for at least a little longer. Others I’ve spoken too have the same position.” Caroline broaches.

GM: “And towards what end does she desire that, Caroline? What are her goals and allegiances?”

Caroline: “That’s a question, isn’t it?” Caroline replies. She runs her tongue over her teeth. “It’s possible that,” she gestures to the coin, “helps answer that question, to a degree.”

GM: “Perhaps. But I find it unlikely Abélia would part with any further secrets than she agreed.”

Caroline: “Perhaps, but the secrets one has can tell you a lot about your influence and potential origins,” Caroline replies. “Either way, hanging around a little long might provide the best window into that family before Luke marries into it.” She shrugs. “Something to consider.”

GM: “Certainly. The family’s background merits investigation more than ever now.”

Caroline: Caroline considers the coin. “You really believe it might take hours to resolve when used?”

GM: “I don’t have any idea how long it might take or not.”

Caroline: The heiress considers for a moment, one hand held in front of her face in a fist, her thumb against her lips. “Then I’ll use it after the meetings,” she decides. “I’d thought it might be worthwhile not to do so alone, but it’s not worth the other risks.”

GM: “If you can’t know the whole board, at least know how you can play your pieces.”

Wednesday night, 16 December 2015, PM

Caroline: Caroline arranges another meeting with her mother late into the evening after the meetings with Ferris and her fellow Ventrue, then takes her leave from the hotel. She gives Widney instructions to gather most of her ghouls for the meeting with Ferris and heads off to ‘top off’ herself as well. After months of relatively consistent feeding as she’s developed her routine, she can feel the Beast beginning to stir in the back of her mind tonight in its hunger. And in her own.

Though she’s been working to refine her victims towards those that more closely reflect the Sanctified’s vision—those that have drifted from god—those months have given her an opportunity to further develop her own routine… and to better understand the habits of her particular demographic.

For instance, she’s learned that while bars near colleges may be ideal, those away from campus often offer more limited opportunities. Coffee shops on the other hand… there always seems to be at least a few graduate students either working away on their thesis, or a few college students hacking away at homework, or a few from both working on their ‘novel’ idea.

GM: Finding a suitable location proves relatively simple for Caroline, as PJ’s Coffee is the only such establishment in Rocco’s domain. It’s a typical enough place for its kind, selling house-roasted coffee, organic teas, blended drinks, and baked goods.

Closing hours are 9 PM. This hour on a week night is slow. But there’s always someone hanging around, if only to use the place’s wifi.

Striking up conversations with strangers isn’t hard in the South, and even less hard with Caine’s gifts. The girl Caroline finds would look like a college student even if she didn’t all-too literally smell like one: brown hair, t-shirt, jeans, sneakers. She’s eating a pastry and scrolling through her phone as the Ventrue approaches her. Her seasonally inappropriate attire makes for a passable icebreaker. She laughs when Caroline asks about it.

“I was playing truth or dare with some friends. This was actually what one of them thought up, ‘dress like it’s spring for a week.’ And post pictures about it. I guess it’s better than ‘stick your arm in the trash up to your elbow’ or whatever, right?”

Caroline: “Depends on what’s in the trash,” Caroline replies with a mirth filled smile. She takes a seat with her own coffee and strikes up a conversation.

It’s easier to simply take blood from a vessel, to force them into a corner and take what she wants, but it’s something she’s tried to avoid. She doesn’t know what lies down that path, of viewing human as nothing but food, but she can guess. So instead she makes small talk, learns something about her. Sees her as a more whole person. Or at least something resembling one.

It’s not hard to worm her way in. She’s always been social, and she finds the girl readily lets her guard down with another woman. By the time the shop is closing up she offers to give her a ride back to her apartment “Lets you win your dare without freezing your butt off.” She laughs.

Once she has her alone Caroline takes what she wants from her, crushing her will then sinking her fangs into the young woman’s throat. The blood is hot and thick across her tongue. Liquid pleasure sufficient to wash away the guilt over taking advantage of her victim. Well almost. She still walks the suddenly weak feeling girl back up to her apartment.

GM: The woman, who gives her name as Joy Campbell, somewhat embarrassedly admits to still living at home. She’d like to have her own apartment but she just can’t justify spending the money on top of tuition and related expenses.

Living at home isn’t without its advantages, though. The older man who answers the door thanks Caroline profusely for “looking out for my daughter” as he helps the too-pale, half-stumbling, and even shivering girl inside as she grogs,

“I think I’m gonna… stay home t’morrow…”

Wednesday night, 16 December 2015, PM

GM: Caroline and her ghouls arrive at One Shell Square. New Orleans’ tallest skyscraper is due to be renamed the Whitney Hancock Center, she recalls from her conversation with Warren, after Whitney Hancock relocates its corporate headquarters to the building.

Claire suggests earlier that Caroline turn on a location-sharing app like Life with her. If the Ventrue doesn’t leave the Corner Club after long enough, or leaves without heading back to the Giani Building (and calling her as to any change of plans), she will assume her daughter has been captured or incapacitated by Ferris.

Caroline: It’s a good idea. Caroline agrees.

GM: Claire seems pleased, if not relieved when Caroline agrees to the proposition.

Autumn volunteers to scout ahead. She can veil to stay invisible in the crowd, letting her observe Ferris and whoever else he brings. When the Ventrue suggests she text back her findings, Autumn thinks that’s a good idea. The ghoul disappears into the basement club.

Green’s tension is palpable in the air. She doesn’t like this, and the mouthy ex-cop was not shy about telling Caroline so. Ericson, so newly brought over to the Blood, seems yet hesitant to venture an opinion, but comments on “testing an opponent’s guard.” Fuller does not weigh in unless asked.

Autumn’s text pings up on Caroline’s phone.

He’s here waiting at a booth.
Can’t get anything solid on him. His mind’s too tough.
If you’ve got the juice to spare I can try again.

Caroline: Caroline’s guidance to the ghouls is simple: she doesn’t like the feel when they walk in, they’ll walk. If the ghouls noticing anything unusual as they move in, they should point it out to her. If other Kindred or numerous ghouls are present, they’ll walk. She sends to Autumn not to, but asks her to poke around and see if any other potential ghouls jump out at her—or potential Kindred.

GM: Emptier crowd. Typical late weekday night I guess.
Wait. Guy here, in a ski mask.
No one’s looking at him.

Caroline: Armed? Caroline sends back.

GM: No actually. But he’s fucking big
There’s another guy here. I think he’s another who works for your family

Caroline: Caroline thinks on that one. It’s unlikely that any newly-made ghouls serving Father Malveaux would have that particular ability. And the ski mask seems to indicate he’s expecting trouble.

Get out, she sends.

GM: Ok. Leaving

Caroline and her ghouls wait from their car.

They wait.

Autumn does not reappear.

Caroline: Caroline grits her teeth. “Fine. We’ll play it hard then.”

GM: Her phone rings. The ID is Ferris.

Caroline: She answers. “Roger.”

GM: “Ms. Malveaux.”

Caroline: She gives the ghoul a moment to explain the purpose of the call.

GM: “We ran into your friend.”

Caroline: “I gathered. You would do well to let her go.”

GM: “Guess we both played cautious.”

Caroline: “A girl can’t be too careful these days, what with some of the threats you made.”

GM: “She’s not been harmed. Would you like to speak with her?”

Caroline: “We both know nothing she might say while in your custody is likely to alter my opinion,” Caroline replies reasonably.

GM: “Suppose not. This is an inconvenient place to hurt her, though. Public.”

Caroline: “It would be an ugly place for a shootout,” Caroline agrees. “And don’t expect I’d be welcome anymore after something like that.”

GM: “Suppose you’re recording this call too. I’d be if I was you.”

Caroline: “It wouldn’t really matter either way,” Caroline replies. “Obviously though, we have some trust issues between us.”

GM: Caroline’s other ghouls all listen like hawks. Green looks pissed.

Caroline: “Do you have a proposal?”

GM: “I suppose this does make being friends harder. I’d still like that, Caroline. Why don’t we start with you?”

Caroline: “You give your proposal for me to her. She comes out and delivers it to me—perhaps with one of your men. He comes back with my answer.”

GM: “Don’t think so.”

Caroline: “Why don’t you tell me what you would like then, Roger?”

GM: “You come in. Bring your backup, if you like. This meeting resolves peacefully, with us still friends, she leaves with you.”

Caroline: “I wonder, Roger, why you’d be so insistent about meeting with me in person, vice giving her the proposal she’s going to hear anyway,” Caroline replies without malice.

GM: “There’ll be offers and counteroffers, I expect. I’d rather you not have one of my men in the same position I now have your ghoul, so there’s also that.”

Caroline: “Then simply send her out, and I’ll call you with my response if I feel we need to discuss the matter further.”

Caroline can feel the tension in her other ghouls, Green more than the others. Going in is a bad reason for more than one reason.

GM: “Your ghoul’s a chip. Make me an offer.”

Caroline: “I’ll forget that you seized my ghoul in a public area she is well within her rights to be in and won’t use it to make a further scandal for the good father.”

GM: “His word against yours? Don’t think so, Ms. Malveaux. If we don’t reach an understanding here, I suppose I’ll have no choice but to tell the boss you wouldn’t play ball. I’ll have your ghoul here to show him for my trouble. Wonder what he’d do with her.”

Green’s teeth are visibly clenched.

Caroline: “I think you’d find him rather less agreeable to you abducting my ghouls without pretense,” Caroline replies. “But we could play this game all night. I’ll be in shortly.” She hangs up without further comment and pulls up another number. She relays to Mélissaire Larieux that she’s going in for a meeting with Father Malveaux’s envoy, but has concerns that it may be a trap. That if she doesn’t call this number again to report otherwise, it should be presumed that she’s been taken captive by said individuals. She relays the location at One Shell Square’s Corner Club.

GM: “Sounds like an exciting evening you’ve landed yourself into, Madame Malveaux,” remarks the quadroon ghoul’s sultry voice. “If you’re willing to cool your jets for a few, I can see if his lordship can send help… no need to risk that pasty-faced scarecrow getting his hands on you any more than we need, is there now?”

Caroline: “If Lord Savoy is so inclined,” Caroline replies. “I wouldn’t wish to be a burden upon him. I’m a little early here.”

GM: There’s a rich and purring laugh. “His lordship believes you’re a lot of things, madame, but a burden is the least among them.”

Caroline: “I can see where Lord Savoy learned the gilding around is silver tongue,” she laughs lightly. “I’ll delay as long as is practicable here.”

She instructs the ghouls to move the vehicles to a spot they can observe the entrance to the club.

GM: Minutes go by. But not many of them. Mélissaire updates Caroline soon that she should “just hold tight to her seat:” Peter Lebeaux was fortunately already in the general area.

Barely all of five minutes have passed before several cars approach Caroline’s, driven by the Brujah detective and some accompanying presumable ghouls.

Caroline: Caroline gets out to greet him.

GM: “Ms. Malveaux,” the shorter Kindred states by apparent way of that.

Caroline: She briefly updates him on the situation—tensions are high with Father Malveaux. A meeting with a ghoul emissary has been complicated by the presence of numerous other probable ghouls and mortal security in the building that her ghoul identified before she was ‘captured’, including those under cover of veiling. She’s afraid that it may turn into a grab.

GM: “That’s not a concern if they’re just renfields,” the mustachioed Kindred answers, more with a glance towards Caroline than with a glance towards the building. He then asks Caroline what she wants to accomplish here. He “isn’t so keen on” the thought of getting into any violent or Masquerade-breaching altercations within the seneschal’s domain.

Caroline: Caroline agrees utterly about avoiding violence, and hopes that his presence—along with those of others he might bring along—would be enough to make them reconsider making such an attempt. At this point she mostly wants her ghoul back. Of secondary interest is actual offer. Of tertiary is a potential count and ID on those here to attempt the smash and grab.

GM: “If these are the father’s agents in the seneschal’s domain this is their home ground,” the detective notes. The Brujah remarks that “we’re looking at a hostage negotiation, then. What do they want from you?”

Caroline: “Notionally, simply to come in and hear their terms to resolve the larger matter,” she replies. “But they’re unwilling to, for instance, share said terms by any means other than my entry. And the presence of obfuscated ghouls in ski masks does not warm my heart.”

GM: “Maybe a compromise and hand-off can be reached. Such as reconvening at another meet site, where any trap’ll be harder to spring.”

Caroline: “They’re unlikely to choose a position more neutral than this—or more public. And doing so would leave my ghoul in their hands for an unspecified length of time.” Caroline replies.

GM: “Maybe so, Miss Malveaux. But I don’t see them letting your ghoul walk for nothing either.”

Caroline: “I’d ask essentially two things of you if you’re willing, Warden. First, enter with me and remain within, and second, as we go in help point out any hidden ghouls or others you see. If the matter appears too sensitive or the odds not heavily stacked in our favor sufficient to deter any action, we can withdraw.”

GM: The Brujah doesn’t voice any opinion, but asks laconically, “And if the odds do appear too stacked, Miss Malveaux?”

Caroline: "The meeting happens. They’ve agreed to release Autumn following it. If they fail to do so it only further weakens their position. I’m going giving up my people though without even trying to get

GM: “I expect not,” Lebeaux nods. “Walking into the lion’s den isn’t my preferred way of finding out how big his teeth are, though. If there’s circumstances you still want to have this meeting under, and that’s also something they want, could be possible to negotiate and get them to cough up a few concessions.”

Caroline: “The expressed position is they will not release my ghoul until I come in,” Caroline replies.

GM: “That’s probably not in the cards. But there’s nothing else you’d ask of them?”

Caroline: “I’m open to suggestions,” Caroline replies, “but I see no concession they are likely to make that wins me more than it costs me leaving my ghoul in their hands.”

GM: Lebeaux shrugs. “Well then, so far as these lion’s teeth. Might be a few ways we can peg their size without sticking our feet into the den. You got any hairs of your ghoul’s, Miss Malveaux? Better yet, juice?”

“What the fuck would she have her hairs for?” Green snaps.

Lebeaux gives the ghoul a sidelong glance, but answers, “Useful things to the right hoodoo.”

Caroline: “There’s probably a stray hair in the back.” Caroline takes a few moments to check the backseat of the car before returning with one of the redhead’s very distinctive long hairs.

GM: “That’s our ticket,” Lebeaux nods.

He sits down in the nearest open car’s seat, reaches into his trench pocket, pulls out a hand mirror, and raises his wrist to his lips. There’s a flash of fangs, then red pattering over the mirror’s once clear surface. Coco’s childe plucks the hair from Caroline, smears it against the blood, and mutters a string of incantations in Latin. When he turns the mirror over, none of the blood drips from its surface.
He turns it back and stares into its red-smeared depths.

“Redhead’s sitting in a booth with a gray-bearded man. Doesn’t look hurt, but doesn’t look like too happy a camper either. Our good pal in the ski mask’s there too.”

The Brujah frowns.

The mirror abruptly shakes—writhes—in his hands, then shatters like it’s been punched in. Bloody pieces of glass rain over the asphalt.

“Should’ve brought a fresh one,” the detective mutters. “That’s as far as we’re peeking, Ms. Malveaux.”

Caroline’s ghouls all stare at the sight.

Caroline: “Does that answer your question, Green?” Caroline asks sardonically, before turning her attention back to the Brujah. “That’s a very neat trick through. Thank you. Remind me when we’re done here and we’ll settle accounts.”

GM: Lebeaux shakes his head. “Settle with Lord Savoy, if you’ve got to. I’m on his payroll. You’re welcome though.”

Caroline: The Ventrue strums her fingers on the roof of the car. “A group of ghouls isn’t enough to scare me away from reclaiming what is mine.”

GM: “Do we know a few ghouls are ‘all’ that’s in there, Ms. Malveaux?”

Caroline: “No, we don’t,” Caroline replies. “But they’re expecting me, and perhaps a ghoul or two. The unknowns cut both ways.”

GM: Lebeaux chews his lip. He looks as if he could chew on a dangling cigarette. “There’s worse creeds than doing right by your people. But whenever you can, you do smart by them too. If it were me, I’d try to get the kidnappers talking some more. But it’s your call, Ms. Malveaux. Lord Savoy wants you helped.”

Caroline: “If you keep running, they’ll never let you stop,” Caroline murmurs, perhaps more to herself than anyone else. “I’m going in. Your advice is well taken, Warden Lebeaux. If you prefer to observe and report to Lord Savoy rather than come in as well, I understand your position.”

GM: The Brujah looks as if he might sigh, but simply says, “Fools, angels, fear, tread. Let’s get a move on, Ms. Malveaux. And in. The night’s not getting any younger.”

Caroline: Caroline smiles a tight but predatory smile. “I’m glad he sent you, Warden Leneaux.”

In things go sideways, an angry Brujah can’t hurt.

Caroline lays out brief guidance to the ghouls should things turn violent. A priority is to withdraw with all of their own. If she goes down, they’re to withdraw with Lebeaux and follow his guidance. Sidearms only. They head into the club.

GM: Lebeaux sweeps up the bloodied glass shards into his pocket and mutters an incantation. The remaining red over the tarmac fades to a dull brown, then fades altogether. He instructs the three ghouls who’ve accompanied him to only exchange fire if first fired upon.

Caroline: They descend into the lion’s den.

GM: Even on a week night, the large group of mostly burly men gets a very bad reception from the bouncer. Lebeaux flashes an NOPD badge and slips the man a cash-filled handshake.

The club’s interior is much as Caroline remembers from her last visit. Silhouettes of dark figures are illuminated by soft multichromatic lights. In contrast to the wildly spinning and scintillating ones at French Quarter dance clubs, the Corner Club’s are stationary and reflect a graduating color palette: yellow by the bar, orange in an adjacent corner, magenta in the one next by, and indigo at that spot’s neighbor. Faces are distinct up close but not far away. Background music is soft, relaxing, and only half-audible against the low murmur of conversation. There is no central dance floor, and most patrons (such as there are at 11 PM on a weekday night) are parked at the bar or reclining on comfortable-looking leather couches. They seem younger than than Caroline’s last visit, too. Most of the older people have gone home by now.

Roger Ferris sits in a private booth next to Autumn. They have drinks. The latter ghoul’s isn’t even completely full.

Ferris calmly looks up and makes eye contact with Caroline while Marcus Morrow greets her and makes brief small talk (including his well wishes over her brother’s engagement) before stepping aside.

There’s another man sitting next to Autumn. Like the ghoul said, he’s big. He looks around Caroline’s height in heels, maybe a little taller, but he’s more broad than tall. He’s dressed in a long coat and jeans that would be nondescript but for the black ski mask over his face. None of the patrons pay it a glance. His thick hands have worn and leathery skin like a well-used pair of work gloves.

The heiresses gaze sweeps across the room looking for other familiar faces, and she looks to Lebeaux when she finishes, reading his reaction to the room. She also recognizes Ben Chandler and Drew Harrington among the evening’s crowd.

There’s a third man Caroline doesn’t recognize who also seems out of place in the Corner Club’s usual crowd. He’s dressed appropriately, but from his thick neck, muscular build and rough features, he looks like he’d be more at home cracking skulls.

Lebeaux’s face is unreadable to the Ventrue.

Caroline: Caroline reads the room and makes a quick judgment on the danger presented by the assembled mortals and ghouls in evidence: insufficient. Insufficient to win. Insufficient to contest. Insufficient to keep her from what is hers. And insufficient to scare her. She strides towards Roger’s table.

GM: “Care for a drink, Ms. Malveaux?” he asks as she sits.

Autumn looks more than a little relieved by Caroline’s appearance, but holds her tongue.

Caroline: “Not the kind you could offer, Roger,” Caroline replies, showing teeth. She looks her ghoul up and down. “I sincerely hope you didn’t try to put anything in her head.”

GM: “If I did, you’d be an idiot to take my word.”

Ferris looks at Lebeaux.

The Brujah remains standing when Caroline sits. He looks back, but says nothing.

Caroline: “You’ll forgive me for not cluing you into my plus one after you insisted I simply must come inside.” She gestures to the larger ghoul. “But since you brought a date it seemed only fair.”

GM: “Fair isn’t the game in this life, Ms. Malveaux. Or any.”

Caroline’s and Lebeaux’s large party of ghouls have fanned out amongst the crowd.

The Brujah gives her a look as if to ask for permission.

Caroline: “Of that you’re correct, which is why I brought seven.” She gestures to Lebeaux, bidding him to take a seat at the table beside her.

GM: The ‘ghoul’ wordlessly does so.

“Seven. Thoughtful of you to confirm that for us,” Roger states.

Caroline: She appreciates the ruse for many reasons. Not the least of which is keeping his name off the recording she has going.

“Or to mislead you,” Caroline replies, again showing teeth. “You had a proposal for me? Or was this just a pretext to get me here?”

GM: “You should order something, Ms. Malveaux. Good for the Masquerade,” Roger states. He takes a sip of his own drink.

Caroline: “And if we talk for more than a few minutes I will,” Caroline replies, her tone increasingly sharp.

GM: “Suit yourself. I’ve asked you here for several proposals.”

Caroline: She gestures towards him to continue.

GM: “This first one between you and me. There were a lot of odd things about that shooting at the Eighth District police station where you were present.”

Caroline: Caroline’s expression gives away nothing.

GM: “You know they’re renaming this building the Whitney Hancock Center? The bank is relocating its headquarters here. Shell is still going to remain the largest tenant by space, but the building is getting renamed all the same.”

Caroline: “You’re stalling,” Caroline declares. “Get to it or I’m walking.”

GM: Ferris shrugs. “You have a hold over several, but especially one of your clanmates you haven’t put together.”

Caroline: “Oh?” Caroline asks.

GM: “I’m sure you can figure which from what I’ve already said.”

Caroline: “I know who you’re speaking of, without understanding what you’re getting at,” Caroline replies.

GM: “As I said, Ms. Malveaux. You don’t understand what you have over them either. That status quo suits them just fine.”

Caroline: “But you can enlighten me, for a price,” Caroline fills in.

GM: “Correct.”

Caroline: “Which is?” she asks.

GM: “I’m considering that myself. What could you do for me or my boss?”

Caroline: “Let’s lay that aside and get to the meat of Father Malveaux’s demands, as a great deal hinges on that,” Caroline replies.

GM: “The files returned, and a big favor owed for his trouble,” Roger states.

Caroline: “His trouble being the investigation he initiated,” Caroline clarifies.

GM: “You’ve heard his price, Ms. Malveaux,” the gray-bearded ghoul states. “His last one, at least. His initial was a full blood bond over you. I didn’t believe that demand’s outcome was likely to benefit anyone’s interests.”

Caroline: Caroline is silent for a moment as she thinks. “That’s a far more reasonable offer than the first. What does he propose as a way forward on the significant attention this matter has brought to me—and to the difficulties it presents to the prior plans for faking my death.”

GM: “He doesn’t. It’s not his problem.”

Caroline: “So he has, for instance, no concerns about postponing it until the attention surrounding Caroline Malveaux and claims that she’s a murderer have been cleaned up?” Caroline asks bluntly.

GM: “If you think that, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.”

Caroline: “Yes, I thought that might be rather a sticking point,” Caroline replies. “And yet there’s not a better option available from the perspective of the Masquerade at this point. Not with the significantly heightened attention around ‘Carolinegate’ you’ve created.”

GM: “From the Masquerade’s standpoint, I’d agree with you, Ms. Malveaux. I already did after your brother. Better to space apart dead Malveauxes as long as possible. He doesn’t think so. He wants you gone and out of his domain. If you don’t do it soon he’ll do it for you.”

Caroline: “You had a third matter?” Caroline asks, seemingly done with the topic.

GM: “No.”

Caroline: Caroline asks a few more probing but to the point questions, only half expecting answers: presumably this is Father Malveaux’s last offer? Why the drastic change from a full blood bond to a major boon? Is there any chance he would settle (briefly) for alienating her family until this matter dies down, rather than a Masquerade damaging ‘death’? The answers are less important (and expected) than the ideas.

GM: Ferris states, essentially, that he convinced his domitor to see reason. The prince (and Gerousia) would be leery of him acquiring such great hold over another clanmate. Caroline wouldn’t agree to it anyway. Two major debts already gives him a potent hold over her. He doesn’t brag about it, but Caroline recalls her uncle Matt praising the terse and quietly-spoken man as far slyer than people gave him credit for. That suited the Malveauxes just fine.

“Depends,” Ferris says in initial answer to Caroline’s second topic. It depends on how thorough that alienation is. The father intends to completely sever all of Caroline’s contact with her family. The greater the extent to which she does that herself, the longer he will likely be content to wait before she must fake her death.

She has to eventually, after all. People will notice she’s not getting any older.

Caroline: Caroline takes the answers for what they are and rises to depart. She tells Ferris he will have her answer before sunrise, as he’d initially demanded. She turns her attention to Autumn and asks if they took any hair or blood samples from her. If so, she demands their return. Otherwise she gathers her ghouls and makes to depart.

GM: Ferris’ gaze remains steady against Caroline’s.

“We aren’t finished.”

Caroline: The Ventrue arches an eyebrow.

GM: A condition of the major boon is the immediate return of the files Caroline took from Margaret’s network. Ferris supplies a dead drop site where she will leave them. Unless Caroline wants to be ‘interviewed’ at Father Malveaux’s and the sheriff’s hands, the former also requires a reason he should trust her word that she hasn’t simply made backups.

Caroline: Caroline awaits any further demands.

GM: The ghoul voices no further ones, at least yet.

Caroline: Caroline agrees that if she accepts the deal she’ll turn over the files and asks if there is anything further.

GM: “This isn’t a deal, Ms. Malveaux. Not to the father.” To him, it’s an order. Caroline’s refusal or any attempt at ‘counteroffers’ will be taken as defiance and punished accordingly.

Caroline: The flash of anger is as sudden as it is fierce. Punished accordingly. Like a misbehaving child.

GM: Caroline is beneath him. He will not deign to negotiate with one such as her. If she will not comply with his orders, he will take what he wants, and his actions will have their clan’s and prince’s full sanction.

Caroline: “That is the second time you’ve made the threat, Roger.” Caroline’s voice is unusually low and throaty, and she towers over the table. “Whatever he has told you, whatever you believe, know this: you don’t own me.

GM: Ferris shrugs. “Everyone’s owned, Ms. Malveaux. If we’re lucky we know by who.”

“Those files and a believable guarantee of compliance are his by nightfall, or he’s doing things his way.”

Caroline: She turns her attention to Autumn. “Get up. We’re leaving.”

GM: Autumn gets up and looks at Ferris, but the ghoul doesn’t spare her a further glance.

Caroline: She gestures in a circle with her pointer raised towards the other ghouls, a simple gesture. Wrap it up. The heiress is more than done here.

GM: They follow her out.

Caroline: As they depart Caroline lays a hand on Autumn’s chin, lifting her head up, then down, then to the side. Examining her for harm.

GM: None is apparent on the ghoul.

“I don’t think they wanted to do anything to me in public,” Autumn says. “Sorry I got… well, nabbed.”

Caroline: Caroline bites her lip but offers neither comfort nor criticism of that. When they make it back to the vehicles she turns her attention to her Kindred companion. “Thank you for your support, Mr. Lebeaux. It meant a great deal having you there.”

GM: Coco’s childe chews his lip. “Some free advice. Tread carefully.”

“Tread very carefully.”

Caroline: “As lightly as a butterfly on a flower pad,” Caroline replies.

GM: “Smartest butterflies use their wings. Goodnight, Ms. Malveaux.” He and his ghouls head back towards their vehicles.

Caroline: Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Caroline gathers her own ghouls and returns to their vehicles, heading back to the Giani Building as discussed with her mother. She has another meeting to prepare for.

On the way back she quizzes Autumn: does she know either of the other mystery ghouls? Was she asked anything. Who caught her? Did she observe anything of interest?

GM: Autumn says that several large men approached her and brought her over to see Ferris. She did not recognize any of their faces. Ferris, in fact, is the only one who she did. Autumn is not acquainted with the Malveaux family’s security personnel, so far as Caroline knows. She does, however, describe a number of men (and women) apparently working for Ferris who Caroline did not observe herself. Adding these men and women to the ones she did, it sounds as if Ferris’ forces outnumbered the Ventrue’s. He was evidently not taking chances.

Autumn says she doesn’t remember being asked anything—for what very little that is worth. Ferris was on his phone. Some of that time was spent talking with Caroline. The rest of it was apparently spent texting.

There was a brief conversation with the masked ghoul after his phone call with Caroline ended. They talked about whether to “call it off,” but decided no. As long as she was here, Caroline “wouldn’t be leaving.” Ferris sent a few more texts, and a few of his people left the Corner Club (including, briefly, the masked ghoul). But the bulk of his men appeared content to wait and stay put.

She snooped on the masked ghoul too, she mentioned. He wanted to stay masked specifically because of Caroline. He didn’t want her seeing his face. His emotional state was… Autumn isn’t quite sure how to put a finger on it. All business? He felt attentive without being bored, scared, overly engaged, or much of anything else. This was just ‘business’ to him.

Autumn mentions she’s “getting munchies” from having snooped on him. It’s plain what the ghoul wants.

Caroline: Caroline pointedly ignores the hint as to the ghoul’s desires. If she’d felt more comfortable in the Corner Club, less convinced that there was a slowly closing trap, she’d have liked to have pressed further on the masked ghoul, and on the intentions and desires of those at the table in her own ways.

As it was, she’s happy to have gotten out without violence.

Wednesday night, 16 December 2015, PM

GM: Caroline’s phone abruptly floods with texts and missed calls from Curtis Morris. All repeat iterations of the same thing:

The Giani Building is under attack.

Fuller sharply informs Caroline he’s getting the same thing.

Caroline: The heiress scowls and dials a different number. This was not an unforeseen eventuality. With Rocco soundly in the pocket of the sheriff the building was much more of a glass castle against forces aligned with Father Malveaux than those outside of the Sanctified. Similarly, she knowingly pulled essentially all of her security out of the building for the meeting with Malveaux, leaving only mortals.

She couldn’t stop that if she wanted to roll in force to the meeting—she simply didn’t have the security to cover two locations at once. She did, however, have the capability to do something else. She calls Widney, posted up covertly in the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel several floors up and across the street with a telescoping lens and an empty SD video card.

GM: The ghoul answers back. She tried to call Caroline several times—but she has pictures. The attackers are gone now.

Caroline: Caroline gives her directions to meet in the vicinity of the Alystra, but to part in the southern end of the French Quarter and directs Fuller to change destinations as well. She further instructs him to get in touch with Curtis—if possible—and get him to calm down and provide a better explanation for what happened. Finally she texts her mother,

Had some unexpected company at home. Going to go visit a friend and see if they go away. Still on for breakfast?

GM: Fuller does as Caroline asks, but states that he does not believe this is a good idea—especially when Curtis fails to respond to texts and calls. They should send people to check on things and secure the area.

Caroline: Caroline responds that she’s reluctant to commit people without better information on who the attackers where—which she hopes to have in hand in minutes from Widney.

GM: Widney sends Caroline the photos. They show a group of people in dark hoodies, bandannas, sunglasses, and a few Guy Fawkes masks driving away from the Giani Building in cars. There’s perhaps half a dozen or so figures. They’re armed with assault rifles and smaller sidearms, and clearly know how to use them. Their retreat from the Giani Building is executed in a disciplined rather than panicked fashion. Injured men are helped out by their fellows while others provide covering fire. Everything is directed by a central figure whom the others attackers appear to be taking orders from. All told, the group feels like a highly experienced if not professional fighting force.

It’s in the middle of Caroline’s perusal of those photos that she receives a phone call. The ID is from one of Rocco’s numbers.

Caroline: The heiress answers.

Support: “Hello, Miss Malveaux. It’s Hound Agnello. How are you this evening?”

Caroline: “I’m well. And yourself, Hound Agnello?” Caroline replies, painfully adopting a calm and reserved tone.

Support: “I could be better.” The Gangrel pauses for few seconds. “I have recently learned that SWAT are heading to the Giani Building. Are you aware of this situation?”

Caroline: “I confess, it’s news to me,” Caroline replies smoothly. “I received word of some manner of incident, but the first report I received was confused—given by a mortal. I’m afraid I don’t have any ghouls in the building at this time. Something about a raid of some kind?”

Support: “What can you tell me of this ‘manner of incident’, Miss Malveaux?” he asks, bristling slightly.

Caroline: “A group of armed men entered the building with masks, hoodies, and automatic weapons. Apparently they got into some manner of shootout with the building’s mortal security.”

“Can you think of any reason my haven might come under attack within your domain, Hound Agnello? If the attack was aimed at me specifically, it struck at a time when it was least likely to find me—or even any of my ghouls.”

“I would have believed few Kindred indeed would have been so bold as to attack into your domain, Hound Agnello.”

Support: “I was unaware of any masked gunmen. I was only aware of SWAT passing through my domain and wanted answers.” He pauses, taking on a more thoughtful tone. “This news is very troubling to me, Miss Malveaux. I take my role as your liege lord seriously, and I don’t take kindly to any trespass from those encroaching upon my domain.”

He adds, “I will lend you my help on this matter, especially as it relates to the First Tradition. What measures have you already taken to contain this situation?”

Caroline: “I have not yet taken action Hound Agnello,” Caroline replies, “I was only receiving initial reports as I received your call.” She pauses for a moment. “Unless you think it unwise it is my intention to dispatch Ms. Rabinowitz, another ghoul skilled with mesmerism, and escorts for them to the scene for initial damage control. Obviously however, I would not wish for them to overstep their bounds with the police forces—and if SWAT comes in guns blazing…. well. There’s little enough they can do.”

Support: “I will meet your ghouls near the scene, then. Do you have a specific rendezvous point in mind?”

Caroline: “There’s a Starbucks across the street if that pleases you, Hound Agnello,” Caroline replies.

Support: “It does.”

Caroline: There’s a pause. “I hope my dispatch of ghouls in my stead will not mistaken for a lack of attentiveness in this matter, Hound Agnello. The timing of this matter is particularly sensitive. I intend on making my appreciation as clear as possible at the earliest opportunity.”

Support: “Very well, Miss Malveaux.” His tone certainly sounds less cold now.


Thursday night, 17 December 2015, AM

Caroline: Caroline quickly gives instructions to the rest of the ghouls with her. Fuller and Ericson with go with Autumn to meet up with Agnello and his ghouls near the Giani Building. They’ll rendezvous with Widney on site. She will proceed on with Ms. Green to her meeting, and meet them on site when complete. The ghouls should not allow themselves to be separated into groups of less than two, and should keep her appraised via texts to Green as events develop at the Giani Building.

As they divide up into the two cars they’ll have from here, Caroline continues to review the evidence Widney has sent her, looking for a clue as to the source of the attackers.

GM: Judging by the gunfire that perforated the windows to Caroline’s haven, even bulletproof as it was, the attackers did make it that far into the Giani Building. They weren’t in there for long, though, before the security forces led by Curtis repulsed them—though the fighting was vicious, with more than enough rounds exchanged for SWAT to be dispatched to the scene.

One of the attackers, though, looks as if a bullet grazed his head. There’s a wet and angry red line across his ski mask. Widney’s photos depict him furiously tearing it off once he’s in the car while someone else in a Guy Fawkes mask looks the wound over. The unmasked man is a Caucasian, square-jawed, hard-nosed individual in maybe his 30s with short black hair. Neither Caroline nor Green recognize his features, at least on sight.

The Ventrue is fortunate that her ghoul spent some time learning her way around a camera with Jocelyn, who was happy to instruct a would-be photographer in its use. The composition of Widney’s shots is nothing less than stellar—and even captures the leader’s phone. The device has Life360 open and shows a green bubble marked ‘Caroline’ approaching the Giani Building, just as the attackers are making their withdrawal.

Caroline: It’s well that so much of Becky Lynne’s instruction focused on containing herself, on adopting the stoic facade of a proper Ventrue. On not letting others see the cracks in the mask. Her hands tighten around the tablet displaying the blown-up image. In that moment Caroline wants to do nothing so much as unleash her rage on anything in range—save perhaps weep.

GM: The Beast cares little for weeping.

Caroline doesn’t remember the screams. She never does. She doesn’t even remember the loss of control this time, so suddenly did it come over her.

All she sees is her ghouls—all of her ghouls, except for Green and Autumn—lying in savaged, bloody, and barely alive heaps on the car’s floor as the red haze subsides.

Caroline: She wants to run. She wants to flee from the combined scene of carnage: the shame of knowing that she’s done it those that trusted her, and from her own hurt and pain, still so blisteringly fresh over her mother’s betrayal.

The walls tumbling down on her evening—and perhaps even her Requiem—like so many dominoes. She wants to get out of the car and disappear into the night. To hide from Autumn’s and Green’s accusing gazes.

GM: Green’s is shocked. Autumn’s isn’t. It’s terrified. It’s even shocked, on an immediate, visceral level.

But it’s not surprised. It’s not surprised at all. The long-time ghoul doesn’t say anything as she cowers from her place on the car’s floor.

“What the fuck—did you—you goddamn psychopath!?” Green shouts, her gun leveled at the Ventrue’s head.

Caroline: She wants to run. Instead she grits her teeth—her bloodstained teeth—and sets about picking up the pieces. Again. The pieces she’s broken. Pieces that used to be people.

Vitae goes out to each half-dead ghoul. It’s not enough to bring them anywhere near to where they were—that would require weeks of hunting—but it’s enough to pull the three from death’s door. For now.

She sends Autumn away to meet with Agnello. There’s nothing she can do for it now, though it galls her to send the ghoul alone. Green will take the half-dead ghouls back to a secondary location and do her best to patch them up. Caroline changes into extra clothing stored in the back of the SUV and proceeds on alone to the meeting.

GM: The Alystra is much as it was during Caroline’s last visit: bright, colorful, and raucous. People mindlessly feed money into the slot machines as lights blink, sirens whir, and tokens clatter into metal payout drawers. Rowdy jazz music plays from speakers and a live band. Crowds of clapping, exclaiming, shouting people cluster around the gaming tables as they make (and more frequently, lose) money. They’re smaller than the last time the Ventrue was here, though, likely due to the late weekday night.

The handsome ghoul who last received Caroline asks her to appear normally before the cameras, like last time, and leads her upstairs to the baccarat lounge. Unlike last time, he leads her past the tables, bar, and restaurant to a smaller series of rooms at the rear of the boat, only to then apologize that Prince Guilbeau’s present business is unfortunately not yet concluded. He offers to deal Caroline in at the baccarat tables, if she’d care for a diversion while she waits.

The young Ventrue, however, may have other topics on her mind—such as the contents of Widney’s photos.

Caroline: She politely passes upon the baccarat—it would be unseemly to divide her attention at the tables—in favor of continuing consideration of the evidence her ghoul has sent her. An identity for the attackers would go a long way in solidifying together their motives and goals—though she can guess those well enough she’s learned the dangers of assumptions.

GM: Eventually, Marcel’s ghoul announces that the prince will see her.

Randolph Cartwright is leaving the baccarat lounge, along with a second, tall and gaunt Kindred who Caroline does not recognize. His pointed ears, overlarge teeth, and wart-crusted, leather-like skin can only mark him as a fellow sufferer of Absimiliard’s curse. Neither Nosferatu looks pleased. At all. Neither speaks to Caroline, though both seem to take note of her presence.

Caroline: The heiress is haggard by the evening, though she tries her best to avoid showing it—aided by her dead state of being. She’s just as happy not to engage the two Nosferatu.

GM: Marcel’s ghoul, meanwhile, ushers her into an office that practically oozes money. Warm woods are accented by soft yellow lights from torch-like metal holders. Luxurious red and gold-patterned carpets accent the floors. Crystal gleams from the room’s chandelier and (needless) ashtray on the teakwood desk. Tastefully arranged white, purple, and blue magnolias peak from hand-painted china vases. Paintings, too, adorn the walls. The one that occupies the place of greatest prominence behind the manager’s desk, however, is of a Neo-Gothic, castle-like turreted building surrounded by a grove of trees and cast iron fence. A young couple wearing a dark 19th century suit and pink dress survey the building from beyond the fence, arms linked.

A wide window on the room’s right side overlooks the Mississippi. Bright lights, lively music, and sounds of laughing, carousing patrons spill out from the boat’s lower decks, but are comfortably muffled into low murmurs and soft glows. The office seems to almost bask in the afterglow of it all, as if to say, “this is where the money all flows.”

Marcel Guilbeau is seated in a high-backed leather chair as he greets Caroline and indicates she seat herself. The ex-prince is dressed tonight in a dark navy suit with a pale green necktie. Two same two golden crucifix earrings hang from his ears. Though he smiles when he receives her, the Ventrue spends little time on small talk. It’s apparent, between that and their audience’s delay, that Brodowski wasn’t exaggerating his sire’s busy schedule when Marcel inquires as to Caroline’s business this evening.

“My childe said the matter was one of some importance to you, eiren.”

Caroline: The heiress moves right to the point. She’s rather embarrassed to report she discovered mortals snooping around her publicly identified ‘home.’ Investigation led back to her family—not itself surprising—but even a cursory follow-up revealed a massive investigation headed not by a mortal, but rather by a ghoul in the service of Gerousiastis Malveaux.

The investigation is quite messy and has substantially muddied her own plans to fake her death—as the prince no doubt recalls was a precondition to her previous apology to her elder.

A confrontation with the ghoul resulted in the ghoul making several claims—including that Gerousiastis Malveaux expected essentially unlimited service from her in order to squash the investigation, and that he desired her fully blood bound to him, but may ‘settle’ for a major boon.

She of course would not attribute such words to Gerousiastis Malveaux directly—but the entire matter has her more than moderately distressed. She does not wish to cause further strife so soon after her acceptance into the clan, but the entire matter seems rather… unusual. She thought it best to seek the counsel of one of Gerousiastis Malveaux’s peers—and perhaps the member of the Genousia in the city most accustomed to helping advise and mediate such conflicts within Clan Ventrue, given his standing as a prince in his own right.

GM: “This is a serious accusation for you to make, Eiren Malveaux, even if this ghoul were acting under his own initiative,” Marcel replies calmly. He asks if Caroline has any proof to substantiate these allegations.

Caroline: She produces a folder full of information on the investigation and a clip from a recording on her phone, time stamped for this evening (for what that means to the older Kindred). It begins with her voice: “Let’s lay that aside and get to the meat of Father Malveaux’s demands, as a great deal hinges on that.”

The tape plays for several minutes, concluding with Ferris’ conclusions summed up in brief: Caroline is beneath Father Malveaux. He will not deign to negotiate with one such as her. If she will not comply with his orders, he will take what he wants, and his actions will have their clan’s and prince’s full sanction.

She lets the words hang in the air. “Obviously I would not level such an accusation lightly—nor would I ask that these be taken as gospel—these things can be altered, or I could have dominated him into saying these things. But I have very little to gain, Gerousiastis Guilbeau by provoking and testing Gerousiastis Malveaux in that way, and everything to lose.”

GM: Marcel listens patiently as the tape plays, his expression unreadable. He finally asks Caroline what files Roger Ferris is referencing as to being in her possession.

Caroline: “The backup of the hard drive that contained the investigation into me—along with everything else on the drive. Numerous clandestine operations that could be rather damaging to the Malveaux family if released. Extracting them from one another at the time was not feasible.”

GM: “Is it your desire to extract them, Eiren Malveaux?”

Caroline: “It is not my desire to further provoke or give offense to Gerousiastis Malveaux, Gerousiastis Guilbeau. In the immediate they provided a some leverage against more brazen action by Mr. Ferris and his many associates, but threatening or destroying the influence or domain of a member of the Gerousia is not, and has never been my intention,” she replies. “Put more simply, I was not overtly disappointed to have them available at the time, but my intention is not to seek to retain them.”

GM: The older Ventrue seems to take this in stride, then asks Caroline as to what manner of resolution she seeks “regarding this whole affair.”

Caroline: She is contrite. She regrets that this matter has come up at all, and only the egregiousness of it has led her to his door. She would not presume to make demands of a member of the Board, but she wishes to be free from the threat of reprisal from her elder clanmate and to bury the matter. She wishes the investigation scuttled, and ample time given for the dust to settle before she is forced to fake a Masquerade damaging death.

She’s willing to, in the interest of mitigating friction, take significant steps to distance herself until that time from Father Malveaux’s domain, even effectively excommunicating herself from her family.
Marcel spends the next few minutes paging through Caroline’s provided folder on the investigation.

GM: “Then these are my figurative two pennies’ worth, Eiren Malveaux. You bear significant ill will for Gerousiastis Malveaux, and he does not look favorably upon you. Everyone in the clan knows this.”

Cui bono, eiren. You stand to gain a great deal from these allegations—or I should say, Gerousiastis Malveaux stands to lose a great deal, which the Structure is inclined to believe you would still view as your own gain. Gerousiastis Malveaux would call for a thorough investigation into the truthfulness of your claims—since you have produced evidence,” he gestures towards the folder, “that cannot be dismissed out of hand as hearsay or an application of the sanguine voice. But as you say, any man could be commanded to say these things into a recording device.”

“I would be inclined to vote yea in favor of any motion for a Board-sanctioned investigation, for reasons I’m sure you can guess. Yet if Gerousiastis Malveaux is exonerated of wrongdoing, for his ghouls’ actions are his responsibility, your dignitas is tarnished for leveling unfounded allegations. If there is merit to them, his own dignitas will be tarnished—and the gamblers in the floors below would kill to have odds as good as knowing who he’ll blame. Rumors will likely circulate that you had a hand in his loss of dignitas.”

“I don’t see either of these outcomes as being good for you, for him, or for our clan at large.”

“There’s wise quote that Prince de Vega, my predecessor, would sometimes say around my sire and me. ‘Let honor be your shield, your sword, and your cloak: let Ventrue save face, and you will go far.’

“This, then, I would propose. The good father isn’t due back for a few more nights. You corroborate this evidence with my people and gather up everything you have on his ghoul’s wrongdoing—as well as the damaging information you have on your mortal family. We turn it all over to him. He takes care of his own ghoul and sweeps everything under the rug, to stay our little secret. Gerousiastis Malveaux saves face, you show us both that you’re sincere about burying the hatchet, and no scandal need mire the clan.”

The ex-prince smiles contently.

“Everyone wins.”

Caroline: Caroline considers the older Ventrue’s proposition. “In principle, Gerousiastis Guilbeau, I have no objection to allowing the matter to be swept up neatly, especially in the interest of once again demonstrating my lack of ill will towards Gerousiastis Malveaux.”

“I would raise three concerns, however. First, that my experience has been—and I trust it is understood that I can only express this in my own terms—when twice confronted with this, the reaction I received was not at all one of contrition, but instead one of demands made of me, and threats of near imminent violence from third parties should I fail to comply immediately.”

“Second, that such threats exist at present, and still cast a shadow over the otherwise excellent proposal for handling the turn over of material to him. Threats I consider quite credible, given past experiences, to say nothing of the smash and grab raid upon my haven this very night.”

GM: “I’m sorry, Eiren Malveaux, but you’d led me to believe you considered these alleged misdeeds the work of an overzealous ghoul,” Marcel half-inquires, half-observes.

Caroline: “Of course,” Caroline replies. “I wouldn’t dream of impugning the dignitas of Gerousiastis Malveaux with such an accusation.”

At least, she wouldn’t out and out say as much. What the other Ventrue may read into her comments, she cannot say.

“But a ghoul that has all but pledged to resolve the matter by force without a response to his demands within the night, and whom was able to marshal a dozen or perhaps more armed men and ghouls towards the matter. Ghouls with not insignificant and varied gifts available to them,” Caroline observes in turn.

GM: Marcel’s smile has faded.

“Eiren Malveaux, I would choose your next words with great care.”

Caroline: Caroline can read those stormy waters as well as anyone. She frowns and bites her lip before she continues, “I hope you’ll forgive me for being so forthright, Gerousiastis Guilbeau. The truth is, given the significant dignitas which Gerousiastis Malveaux holds, his not inconsiderable resources, his absence from the city, and the expressed almost desperate timeline by the ghoul in question, I simply have a concern that the matter might escalate before his return and any meeting that might be arranged.”

GM: “If you fear for your physical safety at his ghoul’s hands, eiren, there are arrangements that may be made.”

Caroline: “Rather more so at present than I might typically be,” Caroline admits. “I suddenly find my own stable rather thin. And while at night I have few fears, many a more powerful Kindred than myself has been undone during the day by a canny hunter, much less a ghoul with his own resources and knowledge. There are others I might broach such a matter with, but from without the clan it would raise certain questions.”

GM: “Fortunately, you’d be wasting your breath in any case,” Marcel smiles. “Perdido House usually has room to spare. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more secure haven in the city, except maybe the Tremere chantry.”

Caroline: Right into the lion’s den.

Caroline played a dangerous game with a member of the Gerousia once before that led her to the heart of the prince’s bloc’s power. The circumstances here are different, but no less threatening in their own way. Perhaps even more so. She might easily never emerge from Perdido House if she descended into that pit for even an evening.

GM: “There’s also Houston, if you’re more concerned with secrecy than security,” Marcel continues. “Questor Becker and his cousin might be persuaded to make their trip home early.”

Caroline: Caroline agrees in principle with the elder Ventrue’s proposal and expresses a willingness to turn over the information she’s gathered to him, if he so wishes. She expresses gratitude and interest in the idea of shelter in Perdido House during the day, and feels it would be more than sufficient—and better than involving others from out of town that might have questions of their own. Besides, she has some matters she must still attend to in New Orleans.

GM: “Very good,” Marcel smiles at Caroline’s agreement. He then addresses a number of further topics with her.

First, he states that he will arrange an audience with Gerousiastis Malveaux, once the other Ventrue is back in the city.

He will accept the information Caroline has gathered took over during the next few nights.

His people will put her in touch with the Hussar to arrange an overday stay in Perdido House. The prince’s herald will not extend such aid freely.

He also volunteers to send a security team, led by Aedile Hurst, to investigate the scene of Caroline’s attacked domain for evidence and to secure it against further intruders.

He raises his own and Pierpont McGinn’s domains as locations where Caroline might make her temporary haven. Neither is as secure as Perdido House, though neither are they sand castles. He raises them simply to “lay out all the cards” on the table.

He finally states that he believes her proposal to immediately distance herself from Gerousiastis Malveaux’s domain is an “intelligently considered one.” It could do much to convince him of her goodwill.

Caroline: Caroline latches onto the idea of making use of his domain—for a boon of course—as a temporary haven, rather than bringing in additional individuals. If the intention is, after all, to keep the matter as discrete as possible, then taking a request to make use of Perdido House to the Hussar would seem at odds with it. In any case, while she could see a rogue ghoul making a run at her own haven, she doubts he would be so brazen as to attack a member of the Gerousia’s. It’s not even clear that he would know how or where to strike there—she admits that he seemed quite ignorant about more nuanced Kindred matters.

She further relates that Hound Agnello has generously agreed, as her landlord, to assist in the immediate cleanup and investigation of the attack on her domain. She’s dispatched her own available ghouls and will assist further at the conclusion of this audience. She’s grateful for the offer, but would hate to give offense to Hound Agnello by giving him cause to doubt in her confidence in him by bringing in a third party. The thoughtfulness of the gesture is appreciated, however.

With regard to the distancing herself, she raises the idea of a revelation that might make her something of a social pariah to them in the immediate term. She would make sure not to publicly damage their position or endanger the Masquerade with something like a highly convenient death in the middle of a significant murder investigation. She floats the idea of perhaps ‘leaving’ the Catholic faith, taking up with a ‘lover’ they might find unacceptable, or even confessing some manner of social ‘degeneracy’—for instance, coming out of the closet to them as ideas that would significantly fray those ties more immediately in a way. She wonders if that might satisfy Gerousiastis Malveaux as to her immediate commitment to her pledge to disentangle herself from his domain.

The two discuss the last matter briefly, with the elder Ventrue’s guidance being that doing so before Gerousiastis Malveaux returns is preferable. The idea of further concessions—in addition to the boons she’s paying out already—amid this move against her is like a slap in the face, but the younger Ventrue sees no better option in the moment.

Like in so many things.

Thursday night, 17 December 2015, AM

GM: The Giani Building is in chaos when Rocco arrives shortly after his two ghouls. Camilla has diverted SWAT from the scene under pretext of a false alarm: scrubbing the scene and stopping any further reports and odd stories from leaking to NOPD (and the general public) will be up to him… as well as ascertaining to what extent Caroline Malveaux is at fault for any breach of the Masquerade.

The apartment building has evidently been the site of an intense shoot-out between the numerous, well-armed on-site security forces and masked attackers who appeared to have been equally well-armed. One member of the building’s security is dead. Another, Curtis Matlock, took a bullet to his lung and is urgent need of hospital care.

Resident bystanders were caught in the crossfire. None, fortunately for the Masquerade, are dead. A woman who was evidently returning from the grocery store had the misfortune to be caught in the hallway when fighting broke out. She took a bullet to her shoulder before staggering into her unit and locking fast the door. Cracked eggs, now-stinking fish, now-thawed frozen fruit, and other food purchases lie strewn across the hallway in silent testament to firefight’s violence.

A man who was watching TV in his unit was grazed across the temple when a bullet penetrated the wall. His TV’s shattered screen took the full force of the gunfire.

The childcare center was blessedly closed for the day when fighting broke out. The cleaning woman who was tidying up barricaded herself in a closet and is a nervous wreck.

One man wasn’t hit by any gunfire, but was doing some late-night cooking and dicing sweet potatoes when the gunfire began. He was so startled that he sliced his finger to the bone with the kitchen knife.

Most people in the units seem to have literally hunkered down, hid under their beds, and called 911. A few of the more educated tenants also turned off their lights, drew their shades, and barricaded their doors. Gun owners loaded their weapons. Some people fled the building’s fire escapes. Skid marks in the garage indicate a few cars tried to flee.

The fighting between the attackers and on-site security was savage, with each side giving as good as they got. Property damage is more extensive than physical injuries—and mental wounds more extensive than physical ones. Tenants are still terrified for their lives. Many haven’t left their units, but have been calling 911, over and over. SWAT’s failure to appear will need an explanation. It won’t be much longer before knowledge of the shooting spreads like a bloodstain over clothes and more people get involved. In the age of the smartphone, anyone can be a reporter, a responder, a photographer, a filmer.

This task remains the hound’s to clean up—with help from Autumn, the unwanted ghoul of Harlequin’s he remembers nearly shooting. She looks equally shellshocked as she volunteers her help and knowledge of the building.

“I… think it’s gonna be impossible to cover up there was a shooting here. Just… how it played out.”

Caroline: Caroline arrives late to the scene and sets to work—with Agnello’s permission and direction—in working to patch up the potential damage to the Masquerade. She has a lean and hungry look to her that the hound has not seen for some months, since her earliest nights as his tenant, and arrives for the first time he can recall without other ghouls. If he has not already settled on a narrative she proposes a domestic dispute: an attack by a disturbed or disgruntled man upon his ex, interrupted by heroic security guards who subsequently were able to wave off the need for SWAT in favor of a more moderate police presence to clean up the mess.

She aggressively sees to altering memories of those affected by the shooting to change their perceptions to fit the narrative Agnello has crafted—whether her own or otherwise—and calls in—with promises of significant bonuses and overtime given the unusual timing—various contractors as needed to help clean up the worse evidence of the massive shootout. Drywallers flush with drywall putty to cover up bullet holes, painters to cover up and match colors as needed.

She provides vitae to Curtis—under spell if needed—to keep him alive in the immediate and on scene. She interviews him briefly about the attackers—and does her own cursory examination of her invaded haven to see what the attackers were after—though she has her own ideas as to what might have been.

It’s far from a ‘perfect’ clean up as Masquerade matters go, at least by her own standards. But Caroline yet hopes that it might stitch up the fraying enough this night, especially as she also works to wipe the memories of the contractors as they finish their work of the exact nature of their efforts here.

Support: As Caroline soon learns, the hound is receptive to some help and for the most part seems to be delegating from the sidelines. He’s flanked by three ghouls upon her arrival: a raven-haired beauty, an older gentleman with a clammy, unnerving smile, and Caroline’s own ghoul Autumn. A cell phone is pressed against his ear as he allows the ghouls to search for any eyewitnesses, put them in a more agreeable state, and escort them to a van with black-tinted windows to be ‘reprogrammed’.

On the phone, Rocco is tries to get in contact with Abraham Garcia to hopefully quell any media attention. The hound has police lights flashing over the scene to give the impression that authorities have already arrived and to stop any more 911 calls from frightened locals. A police badge hangs around the hound’s neck, and when Caroline arrives, he offers her one to wear, as well. It’s clearly fake after closer inspection, but from a distance, the hound explains that the appearance of police investigating will do a lot for the Masquerade. Rocco, simply lacking a better alternative, agrees with Caroline’s cover-up story. He notes that any CCTV footage and online activity should be monitored, too.

While the cover-up is ongoing and the Gangrel welcomes any help in regard to upholding the Masquerade, Rocco refuses Caroline’s help when it comes to the broader investigation into who was behind this attack.

GM: The police sirens start to draw some people out of their apartments. They are confused by the small number of ‘cops’ and the absence of any uniformed officers. The two Kindred and three ghouls spend some initial time ‘correcting’ witness impressions, but it is not overlong before the flood of 911 calls finally draws an actual police presence—minus SWAT, on account of the ‘gunman’ already being dead.

Rocco and his ghouls know the drill where cops are concerned. Donovan does not like to rely on mesmerism to alter respondents’ memories of what happened, or to otherwise make use of blatant supernatural tampering. It’s better if the police arrive upon an already ‘sanitized’ crime scene and can go about their business normally, writing up mundane reports that do nothing to threaten the Masquerade.

The first step is the shooter. The dead security officer is decided as the violent ex: it even explains why he’s in uniform and spares the need to change his corpse into street clothes that weren’t worn during the violence, and which would be another step to properly falsify on a limited schedule.

The body is left where it is so as to spare the need to tamper with scenes. Excess shell casings are swept up, bloodstains scrubbed, and bullet-riddled walls painted over. Rocco’s ghouls mesmerize some nearby tenants into helping with that drudge work before the contractors can arrive.

Corbin and Autumn stay to supervise the clean-up of the actual crime scene while everyone else goes door to door and deals with witnesses. This isn’t Rocco’s first time dealing with Masquerade cover-ups in apartment buildings full of witnesses, but to Caroline it proves a learning experience. Mesmerism, which requires eye contact with the victim, is frustrated by peepholes and rendered useless when the person on the other side doesn’t even want to get that close. It’s the discipline’s “little brother,” enthrallment, that proves its worth by washing people’s fears away and getting them to open their doors.

Few witness accounts directly contradict the narrative Caroline and Rocco are working to establish. After all, no one wanted to be close enough to the gunman to actually see shots exchanged. Most of Annabelle’s and the two Kindred’s work is downplaying recalled noise levels to something witnesses might expect from half a dozen fewer gunmen, making note of too-extensive property damage that needs to be covered up, and instructing people to limit their contact with police.

Uniformed officers eventually arrive on-scene. Rocco sends Caroline and her ghoul away at this point. His people will see to the police while she further attends to her own domain.

That response, at least, is one surprise this evening hasn’t carried.

Thursday night, 17 December 2015, AM

Caroline: Amid her efforts to patch up the Masquerade at the Giani Building, Caroline is alert for an opportunity to ‘top off’ if a victim presents themselves. Perhaps by product of her distraction this evening, or perhaps due to her focus on the Masquerade, she find no such opportunity. At least not until Autumn points out a twentysomething young man whose textbooks she spies through his (briefly) open door.

GM: Or perhaps Caroline’s initial failure is simply due to a lack of suitable victims within the small hunting grounds she permits herself. Rent isn’t cheap in a brand new building located in the middle of downtown. The atrium’s pillared entrance and faux-gold chairs all point towards a lifestyle that most teen- and twenty-something college students can’t afford.

Many people are still scared and keeping their doors closed. The ones who don’t are leaving the building. Autumn points out the open unit with its visible textbooks only seconds before a young man dressed wearing a winter coat, backpack, and carrying several bags steps out. He’s talking into his phone as he goes.

“Mom, it’s fine. The cops are here-” He goes on about not being able to live without his laptops, tablet, and other electronic toys. There’s a sharp (but also worried) sounding voice from the other end of the line. The young man grouses that if his trust fund were bigger, he’d be able to leave the apartment without thinking about his stuff.

Caroline: The heiress all but licks her lips. She gives him a few moments to see if he ends the call, but failing that unleashes the overwhelming influence of the Beast upon his mind, first drawing his attention, then lowering his guard, before finally luring him in close. Would he mind walking her back to her apartment? This whole affair is so terrifying.

Of course, once she has him alone it’s her that most might consider terrifying.

Thursday night, 17 December 2015, AM

Caroline: Caroline surveys the breached remains of her ‘haven’. The door is propped closed and the windows—least facing the door— still have bullet holes them them. Latin dry wallers and painters may be willing to get out of bed in the middle of the night, and wood putty might put together conventional doors that have been kicked in, but repairing the industrial steel door and its damaged wood facade is the work of actual craftsmen that won’t even answer their phones until tomorrow at the earliest and replacing the bullet-resistant glass is similarly not quickly done.

She mentally puts it on the list of tasks Widney needs to see to, before quickly striking it from the list with a recollection of broken bodies and blood splattered windows—the ghoul will be in no shape to do much of anything tomorrow, or for some days to come, even if Caroline is able to turn her attention aggressively towards diverting vitae to the stricken ghouls.

Nor is she likely to trust her haven again until that can be seen to, at the least. She’d thought herself if not invincible then certainly a harder nut to crack than this. She feels vulnerable again.

It’s with a scowl that she dials her mother.

GM: Her mother picks up after the first ring. “Did you make it back safely, Caroline?” she asks without preamble, but with plain concern.

Caroline: Caroline buries the very pointed questions she has.

“I’m all right,” she replies. “There was some kind of shooting here when I was on my way home, but it was all over before I made it back.”

GM: “A shooting, in the CBD?” Claire asks with an audible frown.

Caroline: “I know,” Caroline replies, her own tone faintly distressed, “I’d hoped to get away from that craziness by living downtown. Rumor is it was some kind of domestic dispute. Guy couldn’t let go of a girl and decided to shoot up the place trying to get her.” She sighs. “You know how it can get people people that care for each other. Sometimes that uglier than the random violence on the street.”

GM: “This was where you live?” Claire asks with another audible frown. She asks a number of almost mom-typical follow-up questions concerning Caroline’s safety and the security of her building. Could this happen again? Would she feel safe?

Caroline: Caroline fields each very typically. When she gets to the last, she pauses.

“Honestly, I’m a little freaked out tonight. I think I might go stay with a friend. I know that affects our plans.”

GM: “That’s completely fine, Caroline. You’re sure it’s someone you trust, who you want to stay with?”

Caroline: Caroline pauses again at the question.

Trust. She’d trusted her mother in so far as she trusted anyone. She needs only look around to see how far that’s gone.

“It’s safer than here,” she evades. “My date didn’t go very well this evening.”

GM: Her mother asks more about that. She asks whether she’s packed everything she needs for her “overnight” stay. She asks if she’ll still be able to “eat” well. She asks if Caroline would feel comfortable keeping Life on. She wishes she’d thought of that with Westley. He went to his share of sketchy places. If she, anyone, could’ve known where he was, maybe…

She leaves that thought unspoken and even offers to put Caroline up in her hotel suite, “If you’ve only just met this friend. I know you’re particular about a lot of things, and I know you might remember the time I barged in… but you can feel safe with me, Caroline. You… you can…”

Her mother eventually breaks down over the line. She doesn’t say it. But Caroline can tell.

She knows.

Caroline: Bitter, angry, and bloody tears fill Caroline’s eyes as what she’s known crystallizes amid her mother’s questions into something that she knows. Widney’s photos had been damning, but there’s a difference between them and hearing her mother’s voice on the phone.

The first tip off is about ‘eating well.’ Her mother has never given any consideration beyond scorn to the need for blood, to the fact that she has to hurt people every night to sustain her existence. It’s not something she wants to know, or has ever asked about. It’s something too raw, and her follow-on words only confirm it. The trauma of Westley’s bleeding over into her words, of her inability to save him. The loss of one child totally and the fear of losing another even more completely.

She could be more cynical, and part of her still is, with her mother’s request to leave the tracking app on. But there’s something else here. Something deeper than her mother’s own cynicism as a decades-old hunter. Something more human.

Fat heavy drops of blood rain on her expensive counter top as Caroline tries to keep her own feelings together, to keep her voice level, to answer her mother’s questions without giving away the bitter truth.

She can read the conflict, the raging emotions inside her mother even over the phone. Her regret over further hurting Caroline that seems too real to be feigned. The guilt that all but convinces her that her mother’s fingerprints, rather than those of another, are all over the decision to launch the ‘attack.’

Really, though, there’s only one question that matters. At least to the rational part of her brain that swims for the surface like drowning man caught in a hurricane.

GM: “You can… you can feel safe with me, Caroline,” her mother repeats, her voice raw and pained. Perhaps as much to convince herself as Caroline. There’s not a few “Westleys” that also bob like sad bits of flotsam amidst the fast-flowing current of tears.

But their headwaters, at least, sound safe.

They may not be so forever. They may not even be so tomorrow. Distrust, betrayal, and the simple distance of years lurk amidst that current like treacherous rocks, ready to dash apart any too-small and too-fragile craft that dares raise hope’s flag.

But for tonight—today—at least, it flies unassailed.

Caroline: “You sound really worried, Mom.” Caroline doesn’t quite laugh through her tears. “If it’ll make you feel better I’ll swing by tonight. Tell you more about my bad date.”

GM: Her mother’s answer might instantly quell any such mirth.

“I am worried, Caroline. I didn’t… your brother…”

She doesn’t finish the thought.

“I’ll see you soon.”

Thursday night, 17 December 2015, AM

GM: Rocco, in a perhaps surprising turn of a character for the one-time hound, shares much of his findings with Caroline as she asks to leave. Some of the findings are redundant with Caroline’s own and were already discovered by the Ventrue in her own investigations.

Others are new. Three of the attackers were shot: one was also mauled by one of Caroline’s attack dogs. His torn-away clothing revealed a tattoo depicting a blindfolded Lady Justice whose scales bore a handgun and donut. What blood the hound sampled did not taste like a Kindred’s or ghoul’s. At least some of the attackers were ordinary mortals.

His greatest finding of all, however, is a make and model for one of their cars—along with a license plate number. The attackers clearly attempted to cover their tracks. They shot out many of the building’s CCTV cameras. They even raided the camera control room and indiscriminately smashed and shot up everything there. But the hound’s people were able to salvage and restore just enough film fragments.

Rocco finally adds that the attackers included five men and two women, then grants Caroline his leave to depart the scene. He expects her to keep him apprised of her own investigations into the attack. The Giani Building’s defense is her own responsibility.

Caroline leaves Autumn behind in the Giani Building with instructions to check in with Green and help make sure her fellows are patched up. The ghoul does not seem entirely unrelieved to be away from Caroline’s presence—if simultaneously ill at ease from the still-lingering hound’s.

Caroline: The heiress is grateful towards the hound for his decision to share his own findings, for his decision to aid her in the cleanup, and for his patience with her late arrival to the scene. She offers a boon for his assistance and troubles, and by way of apology for the breach of the peace in such a dramatic way within his domain.

She has additional guidance for Autumn—mostly related to the ongoing cleanup of the Giani Building. She needs someone on site in the morning to help coordinate with contractors and the building’s management. With Widney and Fuller out of play, that leaves her. It’ll make for a long night, but there’s no helping it, and Caroline assures her that she’ll make it up to her on the other end in a form the ghoul can well predict.

It’s a strange experience traveling alone, after having grown accustomed to at least a small entourage of ghouls. The freedom from prying eyes has its advantages as the mental fatigue of the evening hits her, but all things being equal she vastly prefers to have her servants with her, and the particular reasons for their absence spread across her conscience like spilled glass of red wine across white (who is she kidding) tablecloth, and she has to remind herself to be alert for anyone following her from the building.

GM: No tails are visible to Caroline’s eyes—but, as her earlier meeting with Ferris reminded her, there is much her eyes may not see.

It’s been said that the French Quarter begins in the lobby of Hotel Monteleone. This venerable New Orleans hotel sits majestically at the foot of Royal Street and proffers a point of departure for all things New Orleans, including Jackson Square, Bourbon Street, the French Market, and the Riverwalk, where steamboats still glide along the Mississippi River. The only high-rise building in the interior of the French Quarter, the hotel boasts the eclectic flair of Beaux-Arts architecture that has made it a historic landmark, acknowledged by the Historic Hotels of America as well as the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Comprised of 600 guests, including 50 suites, two restaurants, including the Criollo Restaurant, the Carousel Piano Bar & Lounge, boutique shops, a heated rooftop swimming pool, spa and exercise facilities, and a business center that features over two dozen reception and meeting rooms.

Beyond such physical attractions, Hotel Monteleone is renowned for being the favored place of stay for many Southern authors, such as Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner (not to mention Anne Rice, Stephen Ambrose, and John Grisham), and has been featured in myriad literary works, such as The Rose Tattoo, Orpheus Descending, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Band of Brothers, A Piece of My Heart, A Curtain of Green, Owls Don’t Blink, Night Before Battle, and Voice of the Seven Sparrows. The hotel has similarly attracted the attention and use of numerous film producers as well.

Often featuring prominently in the hotel’s literary as well cinematic depictions is its Carousel Bar & Lounge. The city’s only revolving bar, the twenty-five seat, bright circus-clad Merry-Go-Round turns on 2,000 large steel rollers, pulled by a chain powered by a one-quarter horsepower motor at a constant rate of one revolution every 15 minutes. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Carousel Bar was also the site of a popular nightclub, the Swan Room, where musicians such as Liberace and Louis Prima performed. The bar celebrated its 60th anniversary in July 2009, having been originally installed in 1949. Renovated in 1992, the current carousel top features fiber optics that create the appearance of stars in the night sky, complete with a regular shooting star that races across the ceiling. One shooting star crosses the room at regular intervals. Notably, the Carousel’s bartenders created Vieux Carré Cocktail and the The Goody. The sum of all these features has made the ironic bar, and its hotel, a favorite spot in the Big Easy for both its locals and tourists alike.

Claire comes down in short enough to bring Caroline up to her suite. Her eyes look a bit red, but like the Ventrue, she seems to have cleaned herself up in the interim. She talks about idle things as they ride the elevator up to her suite. Caroline’s birthday is in three days. It’s gotten overlooked, admittedly, next to her brother’s engagement and “everything else that’s been going on.” Cécilia was actually the one to remember it. Has she thought about what she wants to do?

“You only turn 26 once.”

Kindred do not celebrate birthdays, Caroline learned from Becky Lynne. It’s an embarrassing and puerile thing to wish to do. They do, however, honor deathnights.

Caroline: “I thought I might try to do something with the Devillers girls,” Caroline replies. “At least that had been the plan. Obviously things are complicated now.”

GM: “I’m sure they’d be thrilled by that. Luke told me one of the middle ones was scared she’d put you off, or something like that.”

Yvette sent Caroline several texts in the two-odd weeks since the dinner. So did her sisters Yvonne and Simmone, who the Ventrue doesn’t recall supplying her phone number to.

Caroline: Caroline had replied, but the schedules have not aligned neatly—the girls often wanted to do things in the afternoon or early evening. She’d promised they’d do something for her birthday though.

“I know. She wants…” Caroline shakes her head. “I’d like to arrange something more regular with them. This week hit me like a freight train.”

GM: Claire just looks tired. “Don’t they all, now.”

Caroline: Caroline puts on a smile. “Some more than others. There have been better weeks.”

GM: The pair reach Claire’s their destination in short enough order. Claire is staying in the FJ Monteleone Suit at the 15th story of the high-rise hotel. It opens into a vast parlor with a panoramic view of the Mississippi River, a sofa bed, plasma TV, wet bar, and other amenities. Doors lead into three further rooms within the suite.

Caroline: Once they’re behind closed doors Caroline almost physically sets aside the mundane. She finds a seat on a comfortable couch and sets her gaze on her mother. “We have a lot to talk about,” she begins, before pausing for a moment.

Her expression is more pained than severe as she continues, “Before we do though, there are some things you should know. Things I haven’t been able to—that I can’t tell you directly. Does that make any sense?”

GM: Her mother assumes her own seat on an adjacent chair.

“It makes rather too much sense, actually. But go on, Caroline.”

Caroline: She digs out the silver coin and holds it between them. “I don’t know exactly what this will do, but I need to know. And maybe when it tells me, it’ll also allow you to see, or hear, the truth.”

“Because I want you to know, I want you to understand, I need you to help. Because I don’t know what to do. I don’t know who to trust, or what to trust.” The heiress’s hand closes tightly over the coin. “But I have to trust someone. And if I’m going to trust one of them… I’d rather trust you too.”

GM: “Trusting others, trusting anyone, is dangerous, Caroline,” her mother responds slowly. “But not as much as trusting no one. I am glad you are willing to trust me.”

Caroline: “I’m already trusting you with my life,” Caroline answers. “What’s a little more.”

GM: Claire doesn’t correct that she has no life. At least this time.

Caroline: “I don’t know exactly how I’ll respond to what the coin might reveal, but I don’t want to risk hurting you.”

She reaches into her bag and produces two pairs of handcuffs. “Before we do this, I think it would be wise to secure me to something… solid. Just in case.”

The implicit trust in such a suggestion goes unstated.

GM: Her mother looks at them. “We can do better than that, Caroline, if you’re willing. Another protective circle would hold you more securely than any cuffs.”

Caroline: “Whatever makes you more comfortable, Mom,” Caroline replies.

GM: Claire seems to think a moment, then shakes her head. “Never mind. Fire’s bad for the room, and I suppose for you. We can secure you to the bed.”

Caroline: The relief at that decision is visible on Caroline’s face.

GM: She leads Caroline into the suite’s attached bedroom, but produces another two sets of cuffs that she uses to tie down Caroline in a spread-eagle position to each of the bed’s four posts. She doesn’t otherwise appear to arm or ward herself, however, as she places the coin on the pillow next to her daughter’s chin.

Caroline: “Some people would have some real questions if they walked in right now,” Caroline quips, trying to break the mounting tension and her own unease over being so helpless.

GM: Claire sits down on a nearby chair, but offers no response to the levity. Her face is grave as she states, “The time is now to invoke it, Caroline.”

Caroline: The heiress turns her head towards the coin, taking a breath by force and all but shivering with anticipation, excitement, and more than a little fear.

The knowledge in the coin—laying aside the potential dangers of the coin itself—is potentially as dangerous as the Matheson tape. Maybe even more so. It may well be plutonium—something that’s deadly just to handle, let alone try to harness. Yet here she is with the coin. Seemingly unable to resist the temptation.

She’s wanted to know since she was Embraced—why. The answers may lie inches away. She hesitates, only for a moment, before she speaks. There’s no turning back once she’s used the coin.

But there’s nowhere to go without using it either. At least, nowhere she wants to go.

“Tell me of my Embrace,” she whispers to the coin, her breath passing over the cold silver.

They’re simple words, but the truth is far weightier. Tell her of her Embrace, yes, but there’s much more to the question’s meaning than that. She hopes that answer will tell her of far more than her past, of her life and her death. Of her murderer and her maker. Of her past and, more importantly, of her future.

GM: Caroline’s dead breath flows over the coin. The aged silver turns black.

The coin rises aloft into the air. The room’s furniture bucks and shakes as a high-pitched, discordant whining fills Caroline’s ears. Claire looks up sharply as the room’s lamps fly from their tables, loudly shattering. The chandelier crashes to the floor, plunging the once-lit room into darkness.

Caroline: Were she living Caroline’s heart rate might quicken, her breathing might accelerate, and her blood pressure spike at the sudden reaction. Instead she can only watch, every muscle as taunt as a wire and her attention fixated on the floating coin as the room falls into chaos. She asked for this.

GM: Claire has risen to her feet and is saying something, but she can’t make out what. It’s too late. The tiny coin rotates in place as if spun by unseen hands. The air around it seems to shimmer like a heat-induced mirage, but it’s more than that. The Ventrue can feel the sucking pressure as objects chaotically smash and splinter against the bedroom walls. Caroline’s body is yanked violently upwards, only for her wrists and ankles to snap taut against their handcuffs. Claire collapses to her feet as the Ventrue feels something wet running from her nose and ears. Her head throbs with hurt.

Caroline: The heiress grits her teeth and focuses her attention on the coin. She asked for this. She wanted this. Terror creeps at the edge of her mind but she resists its tantalizing escape from responsibility.

GM: The room’s tension builds—and explodes with a thunder-like clap. Caroline twists and contorts in place like a greased eel as the coin’s shrapnel-like fragments go wide, raking the walls instead of her helpless body. Roaring fills her ears as a great dam bursts—and awareness rushes forth.

The Ventrue is swept away.

Caroline V, Chapter XVI
Roger Ferris

“I’ve always worked for a Malveaux.”
Roger Ferris

Friday night, 4 December 2015, PM

Caroline: The heiress is grateful for arriving in her building given her current state. She returns to her apartment to change out of her ruined and soiled clothing and to washes off the blood and chewed-up food from her body before changing to go out again.

Caroline_Outfit.jpg The night is still young enough that she can hope to find a victim’s warm blood tonight, and she could use more than simply the vitae. It’s been a challenging evening. Challenging to her faith, to her desires, to her plans… and to her otherwise growing sense of superiority.

She can lie to others, but it’s much harder to lie to herself. Abélia scared her. The journey through the dark, the faceless man, the silver coins sitting on her nightstand, and the fetid knowledge that swirls within her mind terrified her. Almost terrifies her still.

She needs something, a balm, a band-aid to put over her bruised sense of superiority, for her confidence to latch onto. Its not the first time she’s used the victimization of some poor kine towards those ends.

GM: Against such dark thoughts, the scene to which Caroline’s hunt takes her is almost banal.

Despite the Friday night’s still-reasonable hour, the Ventrue initially doesn’t have much luck in scoping out a meal. Perhaps too much occupies her mind—along with the question of what precisely occupies her mind.

Rocco said she couldn’t hunt in Harrah’s, but that only applies to vessels within Harrah’s, the potentially soon-to-be lawyer notes. She cruises within distance of the state’s only land-based casino, and waits.

A party of inebriated-seeming women in little black dresses eventually file out. They exchange hugs and congratulations before getting into their cars and driving off. Caroline follows after the one who smelled right—and who looks on the older side to be a college student.

The Ventrue initially fears she (and the other woman in the passenger seat with her) are going to drive out of the CBD, making the last twenty-some minutes a wash, until they stop at a gas station to fill up their tank. Caroline approaches the two as they talk.

“I feel like a crossdresser in this thing,” the first woman mutters with a roll of her eyes as she plugs the pump into the car. She’s tall, thickly muscled, white, and has her hair in a short crew cut.

“It was on-theme. And you looked, well, adorable,” smiles the first woman. She’s shorter, thinner, Asian, and has longer black hair. “I thought it was cute how we had everyone in the same outfit. Really cute. It was like a dress rehearsal for the wedding.”

“Not wearing a dress to that,” the first woman deadpans.

“I know. You’ll look great in a suit too. I’m so excited,” the second woman beams.

The first woman cracks a smile back as she removes and replaces the pump nozzle. “Me too, babe.”

“Can we help you?” she asks as she sees Caroline approach. The second woman turns as she closes and recaps the tank. The telltale gas station smell of petroleum is thick in the air—but not thick enough to completely hide the aromatic musk that already excites Caroline’s Beast. A musk that’s waiting, just below the woman’s thick and stocky skin, to flow forth.

“Hey, you’ve got the same outfit as us,” the second woman smiles. “I mean, well, same-ish.”

Caroline: “Maybe we shop at the same store. Well, same-ish.” Caroline replies with a smile, letting the hint of the Beast slip its chains and worm its way into the mind of both women. Enough to lower their guard. Enough to draw them in.

It’s such an easy matter to control these kine. To take what she wants. What she needs. And what she needs tonight is more than just their blood. She needs her power over them.

The Beast’s grip tightens around them. “You look like you’ve had a good time. Why not keep the party going a little longer? I know a great place we can go.”

Saturday night, 5 December 2015, PM

GM: Claire’s initial response to Caroline’s text message is that she can see her in several days. It’s a moment not too unlike one from Caroline’s younger days. Or perhaps not like them, given that she generally preferred to avoid interacting with her mother.

Claire’s follow-up text arrives after less time than it takes to fully stew over the previous one:

Why on earth didn’t you tell me your brother was getting married?

Luke’s pending nuptials, at least, seem to change Claire’s mind when she moves things ahead to one day. The pair meet at her suite in the Hotel Monteleone. Claire is paranoid about establishing a routine “prying eyes” can predict, and Luke’s recently-announced marriage provides a believable pretext for Caroline to come over.

Caroline: The heiress arrives in a black Yukon SUV driven by Fuller and is followed into the hotel by Widney, but she leaves the assistant in the lobby as she heads up to her mother’s room. She’s dressed more casually tonight, in a black pencil skirt and button down granite blouse rolled to her elbows.

You didn’t see the pictures? Caroline responded to her mother’s text. Sorry, I assumed he would have called you afterwards.

The thought is on Caroline’s mind as she knocks on her mother’s door—it’s good know where her priorities lie.

GM: A large black man built like a haystack outside the hotel offers to “shine ya shoes, ma’am,” but Caroline has little time for him tonight. Hotel staff ask the Ventrue to wait in the lobby while they call Claire’s room, who then comes down to meet her daughter and bring her up to the suite. She looks at Widney, but does not otherwise speak to or speak of the ghoul during the elevator ride up. She does talk about how thrilled she is by the news that Luke and Cécilia are engaged. “There’s been so much tragedy lately. Some good news was overdue.” There’s so much to plan. The engagement party. The bridal shower. And of course the wedding. Orson, “true to form,” is expecting to have a christening nine months after the wedding. “Since they are good Catholics.”

Right now everyone is making plans for the engagement party. They still haven’t decided on a venue for that. Cécilia thought Nathan might enjoy Preservation Green (and thought they should “make things more special” for him since he’s around so little), but Claire isn’t sure if a jazz venue is such a good idea. Nathan’s last photo ops in one resulted in him catching flak “for appropriating black culture,” Claire says with what sounds like a roll of her eyes.

Caroline: Caroline smiles at seeing her mother so excited over Luke’s nuptials, and over the flurry of planning already taking place. She agrees that something positive will be good for both families and laughs at the comments about a christening. “Abélia speculated to the same effect there.”

GM: Claire doesn’t say anything about looking forward to being a grandmother, though. The shadow under her eyes is heavy despite her initial good mood in the lobby and elevator. Once the pair are in her suite, she passes Caroline the latest of her sealed missives to deliver Donovan. The two’s correspondence is now months old, and the Ventrue still has no idea what any of it concerns.

Caroline: Caroline doesn’t comment on the letter to Donovan. The entire matter makes her uncomfortable. She knows that her existence is being used as an excuse to control her mother—and that at any moment her mother’s refusal will seal her own doom.

GM: Claire also chews out Caroline for “letting things slip” and “being inattentive.” Luke did call her, later in the evening. Claire says Caroline should have called her, and others, immediately after the dinner. She should have been the one to break the news to the rest of the family. It would have “helped things” if she’d done that and talked to other family members about her brother’s nuptials. “You’re practically a ghost. No one ever hears from you.”

Caroline: The heiress avoids the same tired defenses about her “ghostly” presence and the inherent difficulties in trying to organize even something like last night’s dinner. The sheer number of Kindred she had to speak with to ensure she wasn’t endangering herself or others by attending was incredibly inconvenient. She comments instead, however, that she hopes the wedding, and the family’s relationship with the Devillers family will give her more opportunity “to put on something of a public face.”

GM: Claire doesn’t look assuaged. “Hoping is for those who can’t and won’t do anything besides hope. The wedding is months away at the least. Talk is going to continue to circulate.”

She purses her lips. That same heavy shadow hasn’t left her eyes. “And your death is going to throw another wrench into things, now. If you die after the wedding, the family is cursed and can’t ever be happy. If you die before, the whole thing risks being tainted.”

She sighs heavily. “If only your brother could have waited to propose until after you were dead.”

Caroline: Caroline can offer few comforts where that topic is concerned.

She eventually continues with the topic she brought her over on—namely, that now she’s hearing not just from those close to the family, but from relative strangers, that there’s family issues with her. “I’d be curious if people are just reading cues or if someone in the family is actively talking about it.”

GM: Claire supposes it could be either that or everyone talking. “Family solidarity will always mean something, but we’re not the NSA. If you keep acting the way you have, rumors will keep growing.” She purses her lips again. “And if there is someone who’s deliberately talking, you’re giving them plenty of ammunition. The Whitneys and Devillers might be writing larger checks at your father’s fundraisers now, not to mention attending those fundraisers in the first place, but Matt is still angry about you trashing his house. You haven’t given many people besides Luke much reason to leap to your defense either.”

Caroline: Caroline tries to move things back to happier subjects when she brings up Luke’s engagement again. It made her feel good. There was “a lot of unpleasantness,” but despite that, it still came close to making her feel alive.

She’s heard the vampire pitch on mortal relations from her church group. She inquires lightly whether her mother thinks there’s “any significant value in maintaining those kinds of ties” vice cutting them off to “shelter” others. It’s more a philosophical point than a probe for info, though.

GM: Claire says that she does think there is personal value to maintaining those ties. Her lips purse as she says, “I’ve watched people who’ve seen past the Veil let it overtake them. They let their mundane lives slip at first, then drop, then shatter. What they’ve seen dominates their every waking thought until it consumes them. And those are people, not leeches.”

She shakes her head. “It’s true that not having an ordinary life insulates other people. But if it insulates them, it isolates, exposes, and inevitably dooms you. You ultimately have to ask yourself how you can do the most good, what the trade-offs are, and whether they’re worth it. It’s not a question anyone answers easily. Though I suppose in your case it’s more academic than practical.”

Caroline: That, at least, remains to be seen.

Caroline finally comes along to the coins. She has each of them in a separate envelop—labeled—and opens one of the envelops up. She asks her mother if she’s ever seen anything like them, and that she was told they could answer specific questions for her. She doesn’t specifically mention where she got them, just that she has a concern about them and would welcome a more educated opinion on these matters. She mentions having done some mundane research into the figures on each side but is wary of trusting (much less using) something magical that she has essentially no experience with.

GM: Claire looks the coins over, then inquires where, how, and from whom Caroline received them.

Caroline: When the coins finally come up she indicates that she’d be interested in her mother’s ‘untainted’ opinion first, if she’ll share it.

GM: Caroline’s mother replies that coins are a symbolic token of trust and means of defining an object’s or person’s worth. They can symbolize greed if Caroline obtained them without the last owner’s consent, and even if she didn’t. The stigma attached to Judas’ thirty pieces of silver is well known. So too is the alleged curse of the pharaohs levied upon those who plunder (and more broadly, desecrate) an ancient Egyptian’s tomb. Coins also have less ominous connotations as good luck charms, archaic tokens of services rendered, and symbols of chance and probability.

All of this is something that a humanities professor could also tell Caroline, however. An ‘untainted’ opinion amounts to little more than an uninformed one.

Caroline: The heiress bites back her annoyance by remembering that her very existence depends on her mother imperiling herself to work with Donovan regularly. This hasn’t been easy for either of them.

“In that case,” she begins, “they were a gift last night, in thanks for past assistance…” the Ventrue lets the answer last of her mother’s questions hang there for a moment, before committing, “From Abélia Devillers.”

GM: “Go on,” her mother states.

Caroline: “I watched her reach though a pane of glass and seemingly draw them out of thin air, in the middle of a snow storm, in France.”

GM: “Go on,” her mother repeats.

Caroline: Caroline briefly explains that the Devillers matriarch not only knew what she was, but seemed to know significant amounts about Kindred society, including specific personages. She talks about several other seemingly supernatural functions of their ‘trip’, including the faceless man and the darkness, though she omits the knowledge imparted to her and its horrifying effects.

GM: “I see,” Claire states when she’s done. “I may be able to have answers on these with a few days of study.”

Caroline: The heiress thinks on it for a moment, then asks if she’s certain she’s willing to take on that risk. “I don’t want to put you in danger over this as well, and I have no idea what the beginnings or ends of Abélia’s abilities are.”

GM: “There is self-interest on my part as well. She’s connected with the family now, for good or ill.”

Her mother adds after a moment, almost awkwardly, “But the concern is appreciated, Caroline.”

Caroline: Caroline closes her hand over her mother’s. “I’ve asked you for a lot.”

GM: Claire looks at it, then up to her eyes. “That’s what children do.”

Caroline: “I don’t want it to be too much, and I don’t want to put you in further danger with this.” She runs her tongue over her teeth. “If you want to look into the coins to get a better read on Abélia, that’s fine, but don’t feel as though you have to do it for me.”

GM: Her mother re-bags and pockets the two coins.

Caroline: Caroline stops her, placing one hand on her mother’s arm. “There’s more.”

GM: Claire doesn’t release them, but pauses.

Caroline: She explains in brief the offer of knowledge, the vision when Abélia touched her, and how she awoke following the touch.

GM: Her mother’s eyes grow dark and heavy as she listens to the story. Dark and heavy in the same way as when she moved from talking about engagement parties and weddings to Donovan’s missive. Only this time, they weren’t talking about weddings and engagement parties.

“No power without price.”

Caroline: “Nothing without a price,” Caroline replies back, hauntedly.

GM: “I don’t know what else to tell you besides that, Caroline,” Claire finally says. “I truly don’t. I’d considered whether this Abélia was one of you, which still can’t be completely ruled out, but from all you’ve said…”

“Don’t ever trust this ‘woman’, Caroline. Don’t trust her any further than you might throw her.”

Caroline: “I made the mistake of trusting once before,” Caroline replies. “I don’t think I shall be doing so again.”


Caroline finally releases her mother’s coin-bearing hand, almost abruptly, but her gaze lingers on them. It almost hurts to leave them behind, these poisonous promises Abélia gave to her. She knows her mothers right. She knows Abélia is at best dangerous, and worst leading her down an even darker path than simple damnation.

But she also knows that if she had walked out of the hotel with the coins, she’d have been whispering to them tonight.

Wednesday evening, 16 December 2015

GM: Claire invites Caroline back to her hotel suite to discuss her findings several nights later.

As best she can ascertain, the coins are repositories for a pact-based magic of some kind. Claire has not encountered it before (at least in this form) and is uncertain as to its origins, though believes she can rule out a number.

The use of the coins, in and of themselves, do not constitute an agreement. Any “agreement” that existed was between Abélia and whatever source she drew upon to fuel the coins’ power.

While Claire cannot say whether her daughter’s acceptance of the coins constituted a supernaturally binding agreement in and of itself, the coins are not “tied” to Caroline. Anyone could (theoretically) pick them up, whisper to them, and receive their bounty of knowledge. If Caroline’s specific use of the coins was indeed a binding agreement, Abélia would have had to have included a clause that allows individuals besides her to benefit from the coins’ powers—which Claire would consider unusual from what Caroline has told her of the meeting.

By her reckoning, the coins are akin to the same ancient currency they resemble. Two people could exchange them in fair trade and agreement, but if a third party stole the coins, nothing would preclude them from spending their ill-gotten gains.

Claire can find no reason to believe the knowledge conferred by the coins is false. Nor that their origin is specifically infernal—though this would not preclude Abélia herself from still being an infernal entity.

Other perils, however, may result from Caroline’s own hand. For the coins will not yield their secrets freely. Caroline must wrest them by force—and the more she seeks to wrest, more even than was bargained for, the more of herself she may lose.

Caroline: Caroline looks at the coins when her mother has finished. “So even an initial use comes with a cost?”

GM: “I don’t know.”

Caroline: The heiress nods. “That’s a lot more than I’d hoped for, Mom.”

Wednesday evening, 16 December 2015

GM: Caroline is driving back to her haven when she discovers she has a tail.

Kayla Graves. The blonde former beauty queen no one takes seriously, which is precisely why Ferris likes to use her for so much field work—especially any that involves getting close to people.

Caroline: Investigators sent to monitor her activities. Of course.

But mere kine.

She leads her tail merrily along, then finds a moment to corner the ex-VICE cop and exert her mental powers upon the woman. What have her family’s people been looking into this time? Was Graves alone?

GM: Graves is working with Brett Goodman. They have been looking into Caroline’s activities under Ferris’ orders. They turned up some suspiciously contradictory information when they interviewed Caroline’s classmates as well as her professors. They have also been talking to her friends and associates outside of school, including Denise Bowden and Neil Flynn. They have investigated Aimee’s disappearance and even done some breaking and entering into her room at the Harrah’s New Orleans Hotel.

Caroline: Caroline fills the former beauty queen’s head with false memories about their encounter, then sets her sights upon Goodman.

Support: Caroline, a stalker herself, tracks Goodman—who seems the more easygoing of the two, much to Graves’ annoyance—to his Marigny apartment, where she finds him rather intensely engaged with a sex worker who, Caroline cannot help but note, bears a striking resemblance to her.

“Fuck—fuck!” Goodman yells, in equal parts ecstasy and horror. His attempted escape out the window would have been thwarted easily even if she wasn’t preternaturally fast. It does not help that he’s trying to put his pants on as he flees.

Caroline: It doesn’t take long for the Ventrue to subdue both with her mental powers to get the full story, including who the girl works for, how they’ve been in contact, and to what extent she knows what she’s doing.

GM: “I work for Brett right now,” the tall green-eyed blonde answers sleepily. “$400 for an hour and he gets to call me Caroline.”

“He’s seen me on and off a couple months. I’m pretending to be some porn star he wants to bang.”

“I’m not a natural blonde. Dying my hair cost him extra. So did shaving downstairs to match.”

Caroline: She turns her questioning to Brett.

Support: He stares at her, a sheepish expression somehow evident even through the Beast’s grasp.

Caroline: She is persistent in dragging out every torrid detail of the events, setting up a small pocket recorder as the investigator spills this, and every other shameful secret. When she’s pried everything she wants she wipes the memory of her ever having been there from both and has them start as though Brett just arrived, complete with introductions, but not before having Autumn post up at the window with a video camera. The recording of the two—including the opening that clearly identifies it is not Caroline is sent to her mother with a note that simply says, I thought this was cute. Maybe it’ll be of use to you?

If the Ventrue, who has engaged in more depraved sex acts by far since her Embrace for the opportunity to suck the life from others, is sincerely offended or disgusted, she gives no indication. She also implants a suggestion for his next break in to sniff her underwear in the drawer—an event she also gets a picture of from a ‘static’ cam and forwards on to her mother. The blonde’s information she keeps: she has many uses for a doppelganger.

Support: Among other things, an especially eyebrow-raising secret includes that he was a virgin until the age of 20 and fell in with the pickup artist crowd.

GM: “Roger has you under full investigation and surveillance for being a serial killer,” is Brett’s sleepy answer to Caroline’s initial query.

It started with Orson’s still-ongoing investigation into what became of Joseph Paxton.

One of Orson’s investigators saw and spoke to Caroline at the Hilton Riverside. She didn’t use her name, but the man had her description as a figure of interest involved in Paxton’s disappearance (though at that time she was not a suspect). Absolutely no mention is made of Lou. The investigator reported Caroline’s appearance back to Ferris, who found it mildly curious that she was staying at a hotel. Ferris passed that back to Orson, who merely said it was consistent with the story Caroline told him (she went to a hotel to sleep off the night after Decadence) and instructed the eight-fingered security chief to focus on Paxton. Ferris’ team had to resort to mundane detective work, rather than Margery’s usual tricks. Caroline remembers sticking Paxton’s disassembled phone ziploc bag under a stone in her front yard.

Their biggest initial lead was Paxton’s car, which the police towed after its paid parking expired. Ferris’ people retrieved and searched the vehicle. They talked with (that is to say, bribed) police and narrowed down the time period during which Paxton vanished. Ferris next had his operatives talk to employees at nearby buildings, focusing specifically on ones where an investigator was likely to go looking for Caroline, such as hotels. They pulled employee shift lists during the times of Paxton’s potential disappearance and manually tracked down each name, including employees who’d since moved on to other jobs. They asked each one of they’d seen a man fitting the ex-FBI agent’s description. This took Ferris and his team no small amount of time on top of their regular job duties. While Caroline received a brutal initiation into the all-night society, watched her mortal life fall apart, and doggedly underwent a life or death search for her sire, Roger was just as doggedly tracking down the fate of her first victim.

It took over a week of legwork, for Paxton had visited multiple hotels in his own search for Caroline. Ferris brought in extra bodies, mostly off-duty cops and other people looking to make a quick buck. Eventually, the ex-CIA agent narrowed down the Hilton Riverside to the last hotel at which Paxton was seen.

The same hotel where Caroline stayed.

His hackles now raised, Ferris had his team run Caroline’s credit cards to make sure that was the only hotel where she’d slept, and put Brett to the task of cajoling Caroline’s former room number from hotel employees. More extreme (and illegal) measures like breaking into surveillance tapes could wait. Disgruntled maids were all-too willing to bitch about the enormous mess Caroline left in her room—and the fact she was put under a lifetime ban from ever staying at any further Hilton resorts and hotels. Roger searched Caroline’s old room but found no evidence of Paxton’s presence. Hotel employees confirmed that Paxton had entered the building, but no one could recall him ever leaving. Ferris gave his team the go-ahead to get their hands on the security tapes. They did. Footage confirmed Paxton was present on the floor of Caroline’s room—and never left.

Ferris was still skeptical that Caroline could have made the former FBI agent just disappear, but by this point he definitely suspected foul play. Ferris had his subordinates run down all of the floor’s other guests and comb over the camera footage for instances of the same people leaving with a suitcase multiple times—or entering the rooms with certain items. “Chop up the body into smaller pieces in the tub. Put them in airtight containers with Febreze to minimize the smell. Pack those into a suitcase. Make multiple trips if you need to, or leave with multiple people if you can. That’s how I’d do it,” Ferris had told his crew. His leading theory was that Paxton walked in on a drug deal, dead prostitute, or something else that people with a lot to hide didn’t want a witness to see. New Orleans is one of the country’s closest ports to Latin America. It’s not unheard of for international smugglers and drug lords to do business in posh hotels like the Hilton.

Caroline: My family employs too competent employees, Caroline grumbles, not for the first time in recent memory. The Krewe’ s cleanup has also done her no favors. Nor, she notes chillingly, has it done Ferris any favors. His dogged pursuit and success in it is a mess that needs to be cleaned up, a problem that will not entirely vanish with her own ‘death’. The security chief is like a dog with a bone. Long past death and dying, she suspects he’s unlikely to let it go. Following that hole too far down is going to end in disaster for him… and maybe for her.

She continues to listen as Brett spills everything he knows, looking for an angle to cut off the one-time intelligence operative.

GM: Roger spent weeks following up on the Hilton’s other guests. Brett, Kayla, and Ben ended up taking trips to Atlanta, Dallas, Costa Rica, Miami, and Veracruz (all of which were economy-class flights, Brett grumbled over). For all their efforts, they turned up empty-handed. There was evidence of illicit activity with several guests, one of whom had ties to Colombian drug cartels, but there was nothing to suggest that any of them had murdered Paxton. Ferris still couldn’t find a logical explanation—not simply motive—for how and why Caroline could have killed Paxton. He doubted she’d have been able to pull that off even if she wanted to. But true to Caroline’s expectation, the dogged security chief was not willing to let go of the bone in his mouth. “We pinpointed the time and location of your employee’s appearance, but we have no idea how or why it happened, sorry,” would have been downright embarrassing to report back to Orson.

Ferris told his team to double down on their efforts. Run full background checks on the hotel’s guests. Run them on the hotel’s employees too. Track down all of their activities on the same day Paxton disappeared. Do the same for the cops who towed Paxton’s car. Get in touch with Cox Communications and get ahold of the last calls and texts Paxton made on his vanished phone. Interview his family. Talk to his friends and former co-workers at the FBI. See if anyone had motive to want him dead. Talk to cops to see if he’d been in legal trouble. Run his finances for any irregularities. Conduct a full background check. Look into Caroline’s activities too. Find something. Anything.

The last order was given as a simple afterthought, a “leave no stone unturned.” But that’s where things started to unravel.

Caroline: The Ventrue bites her lip. Problems from her first nights in the Embrace still coming back to haunt her. She thinks about, thinks about what she might have done differently, and comes up with painfully little.

In hindsight, every problem seems to be one that could have been handled so much more easily in its early stages. In reality, she knows that there were a million other problems in those times that demanded her attention and energy.

This runaway train might have been easier to stop when it had less inertia, but she probably wouldn’t be here to appreciate it if she’d worried about that. She continues to listen.

GM: The sheer amount of legwork Ferris had ordered of his team likely could’ve kept them busy for months, even bringing in other private investigators. And as Caroline well knows, it would’ve been searching for a needle in a haystack bereft of metal. In fact, she doubts Orson would’ve even considered it cost-effective to keep throwing money after a clearly vanished man, if not for the downright bizarre circumstances of his disappearance.

But Ferris did not need to spend months sifting through that haystack. His first tip-off was from Brett, which was that the timelines were mildly curious. Orson confirmed that he talked to Caroline on Matt’s landline phone, but one of Ferris’ PIs spotted Caroline at the Hilton the next night. Brett made a note but assumed she was going back to pick up luggage.

What got interesting was the reports of the break-in to Caroline’s (or rather, Matt’s) home, which Ferris also found puzzling. Why hadn’t Blackwatch kept those people out? Wasn’t that what they were paid to do? Ferris talked with Andrew Johnson (hey, that guy had a name just like the president, Brett observed), who coldly told him to “mind your own damn business” even if he did work for one of the neighborhood’s residents. Audubon’s homeowners value their privacy. Ferris could have tried to force things with Thomas, but rather than choose the path of maximum resistance, he targeted Blackwatch’s weak spot by having Kayla Graves seduce Ridley Jones. The Crucible washout was soon telling her all sorts of things that could get him fired and became Ferris’ inside man.

There also turned out not to be a lot he could do. Blackwatch had since thrown out their security footage from the night of Caroline’s break-in. Ferris had to rely on mundane detective work supplemented by Jones’ dubious help to get a picture of who’d been seen entering Audubon around the time of Caroline’s break-in. He eventually narrowed down the suspects to a 20-something African-American male driving an Esplanade. D’Angelo Washington had been placed on Audubon’s permanent access list, however, which puzzled Ferris even more.

A background check on D’Angelo suggested the profile of a gangster who’d made enough money to go legit. If D’Angelo didn’t live in Audubon, who was he driving up here to see? A lawyer or financial advisor would meet him in a downtown office. And why would he rob Caroline’s house? It would’ve been small-time money, next to the amount he already had to get off the streets and onto Audubon’s permanent access list. Not to mention it would’ve been shitting where he ate. Maybe D’Angelo was just stupid and a go-between for someone else. Or maybe some of his friends did the actual robbery.

Ferris assigned a separate PI the task of running down information on Caroline’s probable burglars. Kayla had Jones continue to furnish her with reports on Caroline’s movements and other notable visitors. Brett continued to handle Caroline’s personal “case.” He followed up on the fact that Caroline was only seen entering Audubon late at night. Where was she spending her waking hours? He checked with her professors, who confirmed she hadn’t attended so much as a day of class. He approached some of the other clerks at the Supreme Court, who confirmed that Caroline hadn’t been around in a while—and then he found out she’d been fired from her job for not showing up. (Asking for dates, she confirms all of this was well before the arrangement she later struck with Antoine Savoy.)

Ferris passed Brett’s findings to Orson, who already knew about Caroline’s firing from Thomas (the family’s Thomas). Orson was very displeased and told Ferris to look into Caroline’s affairs more closely. This was still only tangentially related to Paxton’s death—neither men could fathom what means or motive Caroline would have had to murder him. Perhaps the separate investigation into Paxton and the other people present at the Hilton would turn up something. But there was still a potential link to Caroline, and Ferris was leaving no stone unturned. Moreover, Orson was taking his usual level of familial “concern” in Caroline’s rapidly unraveling life. He felt especially affronted this was happening after the talk they’d had. He was even angrier after she blew $50,000 at Harrah’s. That got thoroughly looked into, though Brett didn’t handle the investigation into Caroline’s finances. He was assigned to other areas.

Brett steadily turned up more oddities. Caroline hired two bodyguards from Blackwatch, first Amanda Turner, then Nicole Polk. Curious, he started digging into Caroline’s financial activities, and found a number of unusual purchases on her credit cards—as well as some equally unusual absences. Almost no dining purchases. No gas purchases but numerous Ryde rides. Follow-up confirmed that her car was inexplicably missing. Brett also started to look into Turner’s and Polk’s activities.

He looked into Aimee, too, under his own initiative. The only evidence that stopped Aimee from being a missing persons case was a raggedy-sounding phone call to her mom, where she said she was “going away for a while” to “put my life back together.” She sent a similar but more composed email to some friends and her boss at work. She said she would be in touch but did not specify where she was going. Brett reported this to Ferris, who told him to drop the investigation into Aimee and that it would not be productive. Brett shrugged and did as told.

Then bodies started coming in.

Amanda Turner. Dead in a suicide. Nicole Polk. Dead in a break-in. Both in Caroline’s employ. Trenton Nowak. Dead in a suicide. Right after meeting Caroline. At that point, Ferris kicked the investigation of Caroline Malveaux into red alert. Follow-up on the people at the Hilton was relegated to a single PI. Ferris could see no direct links between Caroline and the five deaths/disappearances, but as he told Brett and the rest of the team, “Once is an coincidence. Twice is a red flag. Three times is a pattern. Five times and we should tell Orson to fire us if we can’t find any links.” That became six times after Westley’s death. The three brothers ordered Ferris to oversee that investigation personally. Caroline was passed off to Ben Chandler. The two security agents continued to work closely together, given the potential if not probable linkage between the deaths.

At the same time, Ferris relentlessly tore apart his subordinates’ prior investigations into Caroline and made them retrace each step. Caroline’s check-in and check-out dates at the Hilton. Brett “assumed” Caroline went back to the hotel pick up luggage? Do that over again. Get times, dates, and camera footage. The footage was degraded at inconvenient points? Talk to the receptionists, again. Caroline only checked in and out at night. Why did she seemingly spend two whole days holed up in her hotel room? Why did she have too little luggage to justify a trip back to the Hilton after she called Orson from her home? And where the hell was Paxton’s body?

This time Ferris went looking for evidence of a cover-up, not merely a cause of death. He re-did interviews with all of the hotel workers. They said there was chewed-up food all over Caroline’s room, but no vomit. Anyone who’s that hammered usually vomits. Or maybe she was just deliberately leaving them a mess. Ferris guessed another reason. He tore off sections of carpet and sent them to a forensics lab for microscopic analysis. The results contained evidence of blood and gunpowder residue. Ferris reviewed all of his prior findings and his team’s ongoing work, and felt there was no other reasonable conclusion. Caroline murdered Joseph Paxton. But how? Where was the body? What did the other deaths have to do with this? And above all, why?

Ferris found no shell casings on the scene, but those are easy enough to sweep away. He did a search for firearms owned in Caroline’s name and found that she had a small 9 mm pistol. He also knew she could shoot. That would explain how she’d murdered the much larger and stronger Paxton, and why no one reported any noise so loud as a gunshot from her room. She’d used a silencer and the neighboring guests (Ferris checked too to see who occupied those rooms at the time) were checked out. Even more ominously, that pointed to the murder being premeditated. But again, why?

Then there was Paxton’s body. Ferris had searched and searched, but there was no evidence it had left the hotel through the front door. What if it never did? Ferris double-checked Caroline’s credit card purchases for any of the industrial-strength acids capable of fully dissolving human remains. He sent PIs to the few stores in New Orleans that sell those chemicals, uncommon as they are, just in case Caroline paid in cash. There were no results.

Ferris went through a number of increasingly bizarre methods to get rid of a body in a hotel room: disguising oneself as a maid and carting it out amidst laundry. Chopping it into pieces and dropping them out a window in containers, whereupon an associate might abscond with the grisly packages. Painstakingly sawing flesh from bone, flushing the former down the toilet (perhaps admixing it with water in a blender first), breaking apart the bones, and using some other means to smuggle out the smaller mass of dead human being. Ben Chandler said he heard of a 2002 case where a father got rid of his toddler’s corpse by feeding into a blender and mixing in battery acid. “Though obviously the cover-up wasn’t perfect,” Ben had added, “or I wouldn’t have heard of it.”

The team searched and searched, but could find no evidence that Paxton’s corpse was dismembered in Caroline’s room. It was by all appearances the perfect murder—only not quite. She never orchestrated a cover story for his death. She neglected to dispose of his car, or any of the other clues that led Ferris’ team to her room. In fact, the ex-CIA agent thought, it was unusual she’d execute this one area of the cover-up so flawlessly and the others so sloppily. What if she received help from an outside source… like D’Angelo Washington? Was he her accomplice? Perhaps he tore up her house to intimidate her, when she had second thoughts about the murder.

Ferris didn’t want conjecture. He wanted evidence. He got in touch with Orson, and asked him if he could come to an arrangement with the Hilton. Specifically, he wanted to tear apart literally every inch of Caroline’s room—carpet, ceramic tile, walls, furniture, and all—and send it to a forensics lab for further analysis. Orson said that making such a bizarre request of the Hilton’s owners would invite questions. In fact, the continued presence of Ferris’ operatives was already drawing questions. The archbishop was not happy. They’d thrown all of these man-hours—not to mention money—at the problem, and all Ferris could give him was blood in Caroline’s room and an “I don’t know?” Worse, what if word of the investigation had gotten out? Orson ordered the security chief to quiet down all the hotel employees with a last round of bribes, then pull out his team. They were done with the Hilton.

Brett admits he’s doing some conjecturing. Ferris rarely tells his team more than they need to know—he just can’t picture Orson being happy at their findings. Indeed, the investigation into the murder of Joseph Paxton might have died there with the archbishop’s order, or simply swung over to D’Angelo Washington and continued goose-chasing with former Hilton guests now as far away as Colombia.

Ferris, however, was already being kept busy with his four fresh bodies.

Or more accurately, three bodies, as Trenton’s was never found. Ferris found its absence, as well as that of Trenton’s car, highly suspicious. He was equally skeptical of the circumstances of Polk’s and Turner’s deaths. He wanted to look at the bodies. Neither of Caroline’s ill-fated bodyguards had families, however, and their corpses were disposed of by the state of Louisiana. The Pelican State’s law requires all corpses to be interred in established cemeteries, and also requires a licensed funeral director to oversee the final disposition of any body. This is expensive for the city, which would prefer to simply cremate unclaimed human remains. They did the next best thing. Turner and Polk both received a pauper’s internment: no funeral and a single, cramped vault in a mass vault. New Orleans’ hot and humid climate will turn the tiny stone space into an oven and (eventually) incinerate every part of the corpse but the bones. Those will then be disposed of and the empty vault used for some other lonely soul whose remains went unclaimed.

Ferris ordered the bodies exhumed. This was to Brett’s and his fellows’ great revulsion when they saw—or rather, smelled—that Turner and Polk had not even been embalmed (state law only requires embalming if disposition does not occur within 30 hours of death). Ferris had morticians look over the remains. The prince’s agents might have fooled half-attentive local cops, but they did not fool the ex-CIA agent who was specifically looking for evidence of a cover-up… and given that Turner and Polk messily died in different locations than where their bodies were found, such a cover-up could not be seamless. Ferris’ conclusion was that there were too many inconsistencies between what the police said and what his morticians found: in other words, the suicide and murder were both faked. Caroline was his prime suspect, but D’Angelo was deemed worthy of investigation too. So were the criminals who took the rap for Polk’s death.

Ferris hired a PI to visit the Farm in his place. In fact, at this point, he started showing an avowed preference for “subcontracting” field work that involved talking with too many people, and keeping the family’s salaried employees away from institutions like the Hilton or Louisiana State Penitentiary. While none of them are nearly so well-known as the Malveaux brothers, Ferris wanted to keep the investigation as under wraps as he could, given the stakes. Orson was right about the Hilton. They showed too much interest and the staff got curious.

This was also when Ferris started being tight-lipped. Well, more so than usual. The former CIA agent
told his operatives the bare minimum of what was necessary to complete their immediate assingments, and discouraged socialization with one another. Consequently, Brett has no idea how the follow-up with Polk’s “killers” at the Farm went. In fact, it’s pure guesswork on his part that Ferris even hired a PI: that’s just what the boss told him to do for several of his own assignments. Brett doesn’t know how the investigation into D’Angelo Washington and Caroline’s burglars, or even Westley’s death panned out. He wasn’t on those.

What he does know are the new nicknames his fellow operatives started using for Caroline. “The girl who was death,” and, more simply, “Carolinegate.”

Brett, meanwhile, continued to be responsible for investigating Caroline personally. Ferris had him (and others) look into her daily activities and pull at every loose thread. They’ve rifled through Caroline’s garbage. They’ve looked into her purchases, and seen how many phones and computers she’s gone through. A new vehicle after enough Ryde rides, confirming she’s no longer using her old sports car. They tried to track it down, but only came up with dead ends. Still no dining purchases, though a great deal of clothes and other luxury items. There was a particularly large transfer of funds that went through Franz Hartz, who Ferris had someone else follow up on. Brett wonders if he’s in on… whatever the hell Caroline is up to.

One of Brett’s strangest findings is Caroline’s purchase of Lou’s office building, which she took out a mortgage from Whitney Hancock Bank and formed an LLC for. Ferris through Brett hired more PIs to do background checks on all the tenants—at this point Ferris started bringing in out-of-towners from Pinkerton and other non-local detective agencies. The investigation had gotten large enough and out-of-towners provide an extra layer of opacity. Pinketon’s PIs, in any case, turned up that the building’s tenants were a generally poor to disreputable lot. Brett isn’t sure why Caroline would suddenly decide to dip her toe in the real estate market—and shoddy real estate at that. Did she anticipate being cut off from the family and want her own source of income? But then why drop out of law school, even if she later re-enrolled?

Among the tenants Brett investigated, there is one finding of note—or rather, lack thereof. Louis Fontaine’s name does not come up so much as once, on either documents or the personal recollections of Ruth Holman, the building’s property manager. The most she could say was that “a bum” used to rent Lou’s unit and got served an eviction notice. That’s happened a bunch of times, so it doesn’t stand out. Her copy of the lease must have gotten lost. Brett wondered if the former occupant of Lou’s office was (illegally) paying a reduced rent under the table, without any of a tenant’s legal rights. So far as Ferris’ investigation has turned up, however, no Louis Fontaine ever lived in Caroline’s building.

Among other details Brett turned up on Caroline are that Caesar is missing. Jones, in a surprising bit of helpfulness, even said he remembered dropping off the dog’s cage at Caroline’s house. Ferris frowned at that. Killing a dog doesn’t violate anything beyond animal cruelty ordinances, but it’s another odd piece in the puzzle. And an interesting look into Caroline’s psyche. What made her get rid of a beloved pet? It’s not as if Caesar could have blabbed about any murders… at least to mortals.

Ferris also ordered a full search of Matt’s house, top to bottom—or rather, a second search, as someone else had clearly been over it already (that, or Caroline had some kind of breakdown). They found the panic room and its drilled-in door. Missing footage for the cameras. Signs of occupation in the attic.

Ferris wondered if Matt’s house was where Caroline disposed of Paxton’s, Trenton’s, and Aimee’s bodies. They did a full sweep of the exterior. They went over the yard and garden with metal detectors. They dug up earth at spots where Ferris said he’d bury a body. Brett remembers how much he hated digging.

They found no bodies. But they found a close to smoking gun:

Paxton’s phone.

Brett doesn’t know how Ferris’ other sub-investigations are coming along. But things seem like they’re coming to a head. His boss had him and Margaret do some breaking and entering into Caroline’s Harrah’s hotel room at night—they’ve long since established that she has a seemingly nocturnal sleep schedule. Brett planted bugs. Margaret came with him and broke into Caroline’s laptop. She downloaded all the data onto an external drive. She did some other things to the computer which Ferris wouldn’t let her talk about. Brett has no idea what might’ve been found on the laptop either.

There’s also another matter that’s come up: Mercurial Fernandez. Brett fills Caroline in on the particulars. Even more suspicious is that Fernandez was the roommate of Trenton Nowak. And then his life suddenly fell apart, with his first two arrests in nearly as many days, before he died in jail under suspicious circumstances. He never even had a criminal record prior to the attempted break-in of Cécilia’s apartment.

This, Brett finishes, is where the investigation currently stands. Caroline is at the center of a snarled web of corpses, disappearances, and bizarre happenings: Westley, Paxton, Aimee, Turner, Polk, Trenton, Fernandez. Ferris is operating off the assumption that Caroline is a serial killer. She is to be shadowed, and Ferris is to know where she is, at all times. No member or employee of the Malveaux family is to be left alone with Caroline under any circumstances. Brett can only wonder what else his boss has discovered and isn’t sharing.

Ferris’ current instructions are for Brett (and presumably his fellows) to continue following leads and gathering evidence. Right now, what they have—or at least what Brett knows they have—are blood in Caroline’s hotel room, Paxton’s disassembled cellphone at Matt’s house, a list of deaths and disappearances connected to Caroline, and even longer list of bizarre personal behaviors. Ferris still wants hard evidence linking Caroline to a murder. Better yet, to multiple murders. He no doubt wants any still-missing bodies.

But he ultimately doesn’t need them. Ferris’ team might lack the legal, material, and even financial resources of a police department, but they also don’t need their case to be airtight before passing it along to the “district attorney.” Orson.

Brett has no idea what what Ferris or the three kings (Orson and his brothers) plan to do about Caroline. He knows only this:

Caroline is a threat to the Malveaux family.

And the Malveauxes do not suffer threats.

Caroline: The Ventrue sits back in quiet contemplation, the spy quietly and contently wrapped in the spell of the Beast.

It’s bad. Worse than she knew. Part of her had always taken for granted that Ferris and his fellows—the delegated protectors of the family—were quietly competent. This is… too competent. The whole thing is on the verge of blowing badly and bloodily open into a full Masquerade breach that will swallow up her Requiem and the lives of Ferris (and perhaps much of his team). The involvement of so many outside entities, the length and depth of the investigation, all the moving pieces: it’s not something she can neatly and easily sweep under the rug. In effect, Ferris’ case is every piece of her broken Masquerade she’s been required to break off as part of the quiet war with René. And there are far too many pieces, enough to give Ferris an all-too clear view if he aligns them right.

The worst part is, she has no doubt that he’ll never stop chasing this quarry. He’ll pick at the scab even her ‘death’ will leave until he turns up blood: and too likely, that blood will be his and her own. Eluding her pursuers, now that she knows they’re there, on a nightly basis, especially with the gift Brett has dropped into her lap is not overly difficult. At least a few times.

But the question still remains, what is she going to do with it all? What is going to get Ferris to let loose the death grip he has on this? She suspects that only he can answer that question. It’s time to arrange a meeting, on her own terms. She starts setting things in motion. A private meeting. Catching him by surprise. Somewhere private. She’s met him before, but she doesn’t really know him, she reflects.

It’s time to change that.

Wednesday night, 16 December 2015, PM

Caroline: The Ventrue sets Autumn on the tail of Ferris, seeking a hole in his evening. A private meal at home. Sleep if nothing else. Her own increasingly distributed assets begin reaching out to build a better profile on the prior intelligence agent—assets that do not exist under the name Caroline Malveaux. Brett becomes her unknowing mole—not only does he turn over all documentation he has on her in electronic format—he also becomes a ready source of intelligence. Among other things, he helps set up Margaret’s own meeting with the Ventrue. The script is largely the same as she breaks the hacker’s mind much as the hacker breaks into systems in search of much the same: information. When the time comes to slip her watchers quietly and without offering suspicion she does so with the use of her newest pawn: Brett’s look-a-like whore.

GM: Caroline is able to successfully orchestrate a ruse to get herself into Margaret’s presence, a task that would assuredly be much harder without Brett’s assistance. Brett calls Margaret and tells her he’s got further orders from Ferris to work together. The hacker startles in alarm the moment she sees Caroline’s face, but falls silent under the Ventrue’s command to “be still.”

Caroline: Caroline knows well, perhaps more well than she should, the weakness that Margaret presents… and the danger that she could truly be if she was out to harm the family. She remembers a worried meeting between her father and Ferris. Discussions about IT security, particularly for the sensitive matters that Ferris does for the family. Remembers that it’s all kept on a single network shared drive, with portable hard drive backups stored in the building, to prevent potential breaches and mitigate the physical security threat. And she intends on exploiting it. It wasn’t a meeting she was supposed to be privy to, but then Caroline has always hated being out of the loop, and cracked doors and concerned voices have always drawn her attention.

She probes Margaret with many of the same questions the attacked Brett with, but more still. The physical security of the site. Network security—much of which Margaret maintains and has administrator access to. She takes the opportunity to snap some disgraceful photos of Margaret for potential use later.

The photos are done Snapchat style, nudes that feature the woman’s face, not even bothering to strip everything off. Only a couple of months ago it’s the type of thing that would have turned Caroline’s stomach, or at the very least made her Catholic sensibilities deeply uncomfortable. After the many ‘sexual’ encounters in pursuit of that oh so necessary vitae, it barely rouses her conscience. Especially since it’s something that could help Caroline save Margaret’s life. She actually takes the photos with Maragret’s phone, sending them off to an anonymous email address.

It’s only the very beginning of what she has planned for the ‘hacker’. Ferris’ trove of information, his lab results, photographs, and notes are too dangerous. For him. For Caroline. To both of them.

GM: Or at least that’s what Caroline tries to do.

With the camera’s first ‘click’ of the heavily tattooed twenty-something’s piercing-adorned frame, shock slides on to Margaret’s features. The look is only there for a second before she throws a punch at the Ventrue’s face.

Caroline: Caroline steps away from the punch even as she locks her gaze—and imposes her will—upon the woman once again. “Be still.”

GM: The weight of the mind pushing against Caroline’s feels stronger this time, but Margaret’s face relaxes as her fist drops.

Caroline: Caught in Caroline’s spell, Caroline pries from Margaret’s mind the details of the office she (and Ferris’ team as a whole) operates out of. Security systems, security, and so forth. She pries what she knows about the investigation into Caroline. Only when she’s satisfied herself with the particulars—including backups of the networks data on site—does Caroline execute her real plans for the ‘hacker’.

She’s to enter the office, copy the database of ‘classified’ documents, and then crash the network and backup in what appears to be a major failure of the network. Irreparably. Then hand over the portable drive to Caroline’s waiting agent before returning home.

GM: Margaret discloses that she’s handled everything on the IT side of Caroline’s investigation. With the data pulled off Caroline’s laptop, she had a much easier time syncing with the Ventrue’s phone. She turned over its text messages to Ferris, and even turned the phone itself into a tracking and listening device. She and Ferris know wherever Caroline is in real-time, something that’s been of considerable help in keeping her quarantined from the family—and, they hope, in connecting all of Caroline’s disparate activities. The Ventrue kept relatively little Masquerade-sensitive data on her laptop itself, however, and for the most part it’s simply been useful as another piece in the giant, still-confounding puzzle being assembled by Ferris.

He doesn’t tell her everything. In fact, he generally feels like she knows too much, and would like to get a second IT professional working for the family, just so he could split information and network access privileges between them. If Caroline lets her go, Margaret pulls on her clothes and departs for Ferris’ office in the CBD, leaving the Ventrue alone with Brett. She waits for around half an hour before getting a text from Autumn.

Done. Was pretty easy. Where you want it?

Caroline: The text comes to her burner, as she’s passed off her cellphone to her ‘double’ as part of the deception. Caroline directs Autumn to another rented apartment—under Widney’s name—to go over her haul.

GM: Autumn meets Caroline there after another twenty-odd minutes and passes over the external drive. “I swung by your guy’s house. He’s probably done eating dinner by now, but that’s where he was.”

Caroline: Caroline nods as she hands over the drive to Widney to open up on the ghoul’s computer. She sends Autumn back to spy on Ferris and spends a few minutes paging through what Autumn came up with.

GM: If swiftly becomes apparent to Caroline that the drive’s contents will take her much longer than several minutes to read through in their entirety. A cursory glance reveals folders for numerous persons and topics of interest to the family. Caroline has an entire directory all of her own, with numerous sub- and interlinked directories to other topics of note, including Westley Malveaux and Mercurial Fernandez.

All of Caroline’s suspected or confirmed victims have their own files, as do other connected persons including D’Angelo Washington, Talal al-Saud, Paul Simmons, a Henry Mueller, and many more. Emmett Delacroix even has one, located underneath Mercurial Fernandez’.

Autumn suggests it would be less suspicious if they took the same car, so as to have fewer vehicles crammed outside of Ferris’ house. It’s not a very crowded neighborhood besides. Taking the wheel behind her black BMW is a pleasant change for Caroline from the weeks of Ryde rides, and the Ventrue and her ghoul arrive at their destination after a fifteen-minute drive. The security guard’s eyes glaze over as Caroline commands him to let her vehicle past the walled, barbed wire-tipped perimeter designed to keep out non-residents. Past it, Lakeview is an affluent suburban neighborhood on the southern edge of Lake Lake Pontchartrain and the far north of the city’s downtown hub. A steady rain plunks against the dark lake’s rippling surface and the endless black expanse it stretches off into. It’s like staring off the edge of the world.

Those edges overflowed during one not-too distant point. Dozens of homes clustered right against Pontchartrain’s waterfront made Lakeview one of the city’s worst-flooded areas during Katrina. Rebuilding efforts were clearly much higher priority in the upper-income, majority-white neighborhood than the Ninth Ward, however. Caroline could hardly guess that Pontchartrain’s hungry black waters once devoured everything where her car now sits. Now, the neighborhood is merely still and peaceful as it beds down for the night. Golf courses sit empty, and no ice cream trucks, dogs being walked, or tricycle-riding children are visible on the streets. Rows and rows of seemingly cloned McMansion houses endlessly stretch sideways and behind Caroline, stopping only at the edge of the lake. It doesn’t even feel like Caroline is in New Orleans. There are identical development lots to this one in countless other suburbs throughout the country.

Roger Ferris’ house is a large, two-story affair with an attached garage, minimalist front garden, and expansive backyard with a high-end barbecue grill. A balcony on the house’s second story affords a pleasant view of the nearby lake, and an attached open-air staircase leads down to the backyard. All told, the home is reflective of the very good money someone of Roger’s background can make in the private sector. It doesn’t have the history of Orson’s 19th century Greek Revival house, and seems more like a high-end purchase than a place steeped in history. But Caroline can still imagine cooking hamburgers on the grill during some hot July day, perhaps with a tall glass of lemonade, and sitting back on the deck chairs to enjoy a cool breeze from the lake.

But it’s harder than before.

Perhaps it’s the dark, wet night that makes thoughts of food and warmth seem so remote. The steady plunk of rain against car windows and the low ‘wssshh’ of wind is louder than whatever grilling a burger sounded like (sizzling?). The lake’s endless black expanse makes it hard to summon thoughts of blue skies and bright suns. The warm scent of Autumn, so near to Caroline in the car’s cramped space, so absolutely alive in every sense from her beating heart to her blinking eyes to her wagging tongue, is so much more vital than strips of dead protein being artificially warmed over metal. It’s so easy to picture drawing that animus out of Autumn’s fleshy shell and into herself.

Autumn offers her domitor a pair of binoculars as she glances towards one of the house’s brightly-lit window. “He’s watching a movie with his daughter, looks like. They were eating dinner last I checked before then. Doesn’t seem to be a wife in the picture.”

Or perhaps it’s the simple fact that Caroline will forever be the outsider sitting off in the wet and the dark, only able to peer in on lives like Ferris’.

Caroline: “No, there wouldn’t be,” Caroline answers the ghoul, trying to focus on the agent instead of her agent. The entire thing just smells wrong. The jump to murder, especially when Wright so conveniently offered an alternative scenario… she can’t help but suspect someone else is helping to drive the investigation in a direction that can only end badly for her.

“Let’s go have a chat.”

She has Autumn approach the house and ring the bell, lingering out of frame from the window.

GM: Caroline can make out Ferris sitting on a couch that’s facing a wall-mounted TV screen. He’s a tall man in his 40s or so, with a close-cropped beard and mustache. His hair is grayer than the rest of his angular face looks, and his fit frame, though not rippling with muscle, lacks any excess body fat. The man has an almost wolf-like countenance—lean, mean, and hungry. He’s dressed in a simple sweater and pair of jeans.

The girl sitting next to him looks maybe eleven or twelve, with all the awkwardness that age entails. She’s just a little too thin, with plain and mousy facial features, a noticeable red pimple on the bottom of her right cheek, and shoulder-length black hair. She wears a tank top and pair of pajama pants. Roger turns his head to say something inaudible to her, then gets up to answer the door.

“Can I help you?” he asks Autumn.

Caroline: Caroline steps into frame. “I think a conversation is long overdue, don’t you, Mr. Ferris?” Her tone is neither menacing nor friendly. Her expression is severe.

GM: The security chief’s neutral expression doesn’t change as Caroline appears. “Excuse me for a moment.” He holds the door open for the two, but doesn’t wait for a reply before he turns away and calls, “Miranda, I’ve got visitors. Get ready for bed.”

“Okay, Dad,” calls a girl’s voice.

Ferris strides out of the house’s entry hall, disappearing from sight. Caroline hears the sounds of the TV die. “We’ll finish this later.” There’s a sound of distant footsteps, one pair light and one pair heavier.

Caroline: Caroline steps into the house when he holds the door open and takes a position further in the entryway where she has a better feel for where he’s going, and more importantly, what he’s doing.

GM: Her family’s security chief’s is so calm and swift ushering her and Autumn inside that Caroline almost doesn’t process it when he abruptly disappears out of sight, past the entrance to the house’s living room.

Caroline: She proceeds after him on light—and swift—feet.

GM: Caroline walks into the living room. There’s a couch, two overstuffed chairs, the wall-mounted TV, a visible connected kitchen that Miranda seems to have disappeared into, and an empty fireplace. Ferris stands nearby with a gun held in his hands, trained low to to the ground.

“That would be a bad idea if you’re thinking of mindfucking me,” he mentions offhandedly.

Caroline: “Why is that?” Caroline asks him coolly.

GM: “Sit down,” Roger says, motioning with the gun. His stance with it is casual. Like it’s not really a weapon.

Autumn’s eyes cut to Caroline’s.

Caroline: “Oh Roger, I’d wanted to keep you out of this. Was trying to figure out a way to keep you in the dark, even as you dig.” Caroline does not move to sit at the orders. She genuinely seems regretful.

GM: “That was unrealistic of you.”

Caroline: “Maybe it was, but you don’t know what you’ve been pulled into. It’s a recent thing, isn’t it? Father Malveaux, I presume?”

GM: “I’ve always worked for a Malveaux,” Roger answers.

Caroline: “Proof,” Caroline says shortly. “That you’re not just a hunter.”

He’ll know what to provide if he is what he claims.

GM: Ferris shrugs, nicks his finger with a pocketknife, and extends it to Caroline.

Caroline: She samples the blade’s edge with her tongue.

GM: She tastes the telltale flavor of diluted vitae. Weaker than any Kindred’s, but stronger than any mortal’s.

Caroline: She shakes her head. “And he was the one that set you on the trail, building evidence. It seemed unlikely that you’d settle on ‘heiress goes insane and starts murdering’ over other, more likely scenarios. Especially when Turner and Polk were clearly murdered. No reason to hire security to murder them yourself.”

GM: “The two of you can sit now. We both know guns are next to useless. Those murders of yours though, all very sloppy. It’s no wonder your kind need men like me.”

Caroline: “Which ones?”

GM: “All of them.”

Caroline: Caroline makes no move to sit, though she does stroll over to the mantle.

“Ah, you’re mistaken in that.”

GM: “I’ll have to dig deeper then. Don’t want to disappoint the new boss.”

Caroline: “You should talk him about them, since two belong to him.”

GM: “I know.”

Caroline: “So what is this, build a case against me to throw me under the bus?”

GM: “The Sanctified could bury you without any of this if they wanted to.”

Caroline: “So why the fuss?”

There’s a growing anger hidden behind her words. It speaks not in her tone, but in her body language.

GM: “Better question. What extra fuss is there for the Masquerade since you started looking into this? I hope you didn’t kill one of my people.”

Caroline: “Whatever I may be, Roger, I don’t set out each night to be a monster. Your people are all hale and whole. If I was really that monstrous do you think I’d have let you shepherd away your daughter? Or that we’d be having this conversation?”

GM: “She could scream. Run out the door. Or not scream, and climb out her window. I’d kill me quietly down here and smother her with a pillow upstairs if I were the one doing that.”

Caroline: Caroline shakes her head. “You’re a dangerous man, Roger, but I think that’s enough on that morbid subject.”

She finishes her study of the pictures on the mantle, the ones of Roger and his daughter. “Put the gun down, it makes you look foolish.”

GM: The closest picture shows the two of them in front of the iconic castle-gate entrance to Disneyland. There’s a little less salt in Roger’s pepper beard, while his daughter is a smaller, significantly cuter-looking child, though there’s still more mouse than wolf in her facial features. They seem to have taken more after her mother.

Caroline: “I came to talk, because I don’t want to hurt your people, but this,” she waves a hand, “cannot continue. I needed to know how deep it ran.”

GM: The ghoul doesn’t relax the gun as he continues, “For now the boss needs you alive. Mrs. Malveaux will blame us if you disappear and stop cooperating. Another mess to clean up.”

Caroline: Caroline stops cold. “I respect you, Roger. Maybe even liked you when I was still alive. But if you refer to my mother as a ‘mess to clean up’ again I’ll take that gun from you and put it in your daughter’s mouth, do you understand?”

GM: “And if you threaten my family a second time there won’t be a third.” Roger’s tone and posture remain level. “If we’re done posturing, are you ready to carry out Father Malveaux’s orders?”

Caroline: “I’m ready to hear his requests,” Caroline counters.

GM: “Stupid. You’ve been an annoyance to him so far. Keep pushing him and you’ll be his enemy.”

Caroline: “He’s murdered my people and only needs me ‘alive’ for now. I think we’re well past the point of annoyance,” Caroline offers. “But by all means, I’m willing to hear his wishes in the spirit of avoiding a conflict that would end with you and I both dead and the family worse off for it.” She then corrects, “Well… deader.”

GM: “My team’s off-limits. He’ll be checking their heads periodically to see if you’ve been in there.”

Caroline: “A delightful experience to be sure,” Caroline offers. “What else?”

GM: “I’ll be our go-between in any future dealings. He doesn’t want to ever talk with you again if he can help it.”

Caroline: Caroline laughs lightly. “Is that a demand or a concession?” she asks.

GM: “You’re lucky you’re still an annoyance,” Roger repeats.

Caroline: Caroline gives Roger a very flat look. “Anything else?”

GM: “Last time I’ll warn you about him, Caroline. Killing you would be quite a disfavor to my old boss, and burning bridges like that isn’t good business in my line of work. But if you aggravate him any more, he and the sheriff will take care of Mrs. Malveaux without you. They have standing. Connections. The prince’s favor. You don’t.”

“I liked you too when you were alive. Don’t do anything stupid.”

Caroline: “Like not bend to their every whim and demand while they hold your investigation over me like the Sword of Damocles?”

GM: “Occasional requests. He doesn’t think you’re trustworthy enough to handle many of the things he’d want. But he’s not going to sweep my investigation under the rug for free either.”

Caroline: “Blackmailing me with a Masquerade breach that he engineered. How shocking. And when is that fee paid off?”

GM: “He’s not even thinking about that until I’ve bribed every witness, paid off every PI, put my team on new assignments, and shut this whole thing down.”

Caroline: “So indefinite blackmail, then.”

GM: “He’d never create a Masquerade breach. That’s blasphemy.”

Caroline: Caroline doesn’t bother responding to that.

“It’s a bad play, Roger,” she murmurs. “A very bad play. Especially when you’ve been ramping up the investigation, not ramping down. Carolinegate?” She shakes her head.

GM: “Brett’s always been the one with the sense of humor. It all started when you killed Paxton.”

Caroline: “It all started when Paxton barged in and shot me in the head,” Caroline snaps back. “And that it didn’t stop after he brought you in does not encourage me.”

GM: “It started when you didn’t ghoul him. Get rid of his car. Invent a cover story for his disappearance. Sloppy.”

“But you’re right about one thing. It’s done. Waste of breath now. How did you find out and what did you disturb when you did?”

Caroline: “I went poking around your network. You keep very detailed files.”

GM: “Margaret’s compromised, then. Shame. She was useful.”

Caroline: “They’re gone, by the way.”

GM: “You don’t need to be a Margaret to make backups.”

Caroline: Caroline doesn’t quite smirk. “Was there anything else in the now?”

GM: “A reliable number for me to reach you. And the immediate return of any file copies you made. We’ll drive back to wherever you’re keeping them.”

Caroline: “And in return for all of this?”

GM: “Father Malveaux keeps considering you an annoyance instead of an enemy. He’d be a madman to let you keep those files.”

Caroline: Caroline bites her lip in thought for a moment before shaking her head.

“No. Not under those conditions.”

GM: “If you want a war he’ll give you one. All of the city will be on his side.”

Caroline: “I want nothing to do with him,” Caroline replies. “I want to never see him again. I want to stage my ‘death’ and get out of his business, and he out of mine. All of those things I was well on the way to doing before you stuck your nose deeper and deeper into my business.”

GM: “You were driving here to drop off his files? Hand them over then, please.” It’s the closest thing to humor Caroline thinks she’s seen from her family’s retainer yet.

Caroline: “I’d actually thought to find out how far down the rabbit hole things had gone here, and whether this mess could still be covered up without bringing it to his attention by folding everything into my pending ‘death’.”

GM: “Tampering with his domain instead of going to him. Foolish.”

Caroline: “And yet I was doing it for your sake, Roger.” Caroline sets her head to the side for the statement, in a chiding tone.

GM: “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Caroline: “Turner thought the same thing.”

GM: “I’ve learned all about her mistakes.”

Caroline: “A word of caution, Roger,” Caroline offers sincerely. “Get out when you can. Before he uses you up. Before you end up another suicide and your daughter ends up without a father. Or you don’t and the same thing happens. Eventually this life will consume you. It’ll drag you in.”

GM: “I’m sure there’s plenty other ghouls who thought it could never happen to them. I won’t be one. I’ll study everything they did wrong and do it right.”

Caroline: “I knew a ghoul, a century old or more. Do you know what he was?”

GM: “Incompetent not to get Embraced by that point.”

Caroline: “Jesus Christ,” Caroline murmurs. “You actually want this?”

GM: “You’re predators. So am I.” The sharp-featured, gray-bearded man’s wolf-like countenance seems all the more lupine. “You’ve got a head start. I’ll catch up.”

Caroline: “No, Roger. We’re not predators. We’re monsters. We’re devils wrapped in the flesh of people others once knew. And eventually all that’s left is the devil.”

GM: “But one thing I’ve observed,” Roger says thoughtfully. “Turner and Polk were both at your mercy. No backup. No friends. They were just the help. And helpless.”

“I think I can talk Father Malveaux into settling for more modest demands.”

Caroline: Caroline doesn’t smile, but she does finally slide into a seat, watching the ghoul. Lounging, one hand on her chin.

“Can you now,” she half-asks, half-states.

GM: “In return, you’ll owe me. You’ll be my friend,” Ferris continues shrewdly. “The backup your ghouls could never call on. But unlike Father Malveaux, I’ll be your friend too. I won’t ever burn my own boss, but you’ll at least get something out of this arrangement.”

Caroline: “What kind of more modest demands?” Caroline asks, contemplative.

GM: Ferris finally takes his own seat on the couch. Autumn, silent throughout the entire exchange, sits down on one of the fat chairs.

“The files still get returned. Even I don’t want you to have those. But a fixed debt instead of an indefinite one.”

Caroline: “Those files could bring down the Malveaux family. To their knees. Unelectable, under investigation. Prison time for some, I’d expect. Probably most of your team. Maybe you, though I don’t think you were that careless,” Caroline replies bluntly. “Assets frozen.”

GM: “No. Orson and the others aren’t so stupid as to trust me with everything. And I’m not so stupid as to put everything on a potentially hackable system that Margaret has administrator access to. It would be inconvenient for those to come out. Painful. But not a death blow.”

Caroline: “There’s enough. How large of a ‘debt’ are we talking about?”

GM: “Enough for him to feel like he’s been compensated for the mess with Paxton. And everything else.”

Caroline: Caroline waits.

GM: “Don’t forget. The moment you release those files, Father Malveaux goes to war with you and has the prince’s entire bloc on his side. They can make scandals disappear in ways I only used to dream about.”

“So you’re suggesting what, a grade four debt? Grade five?” Autumn asks.

Ferris’ eyes take in Autumn’s words, but his gaze remains steady on Caroline.

Caroline: Caroline stares at Ferris, then rises at last. “Not decisions that need to be made tonight. I’m not handing over anything until you speak with him on your end. ‘I think’ is not enough to sell me, Roger.”

GM: “Father Malveaux won’t negotiate with you. You’re mud off a boot to him. I would suggest that you’re too incompetent and unstable for him to meaningfully recoup anything from a larger debt.”

Caroline: “Roger, you’re a very capable man, you tell me: how much attention would you pay to an employee with no experience in your field who started working yesterday? You can communicate to him that I have no desire to interfere in his business, or antagonize him, and that I’ll be happy to arrange an exchange. But not on a non-herald’s ‘perhaps’.”

GM: Roger shakes his head. “Still don’t get it. He won’t negotiate with you for those files. He’ll just take them. Or the sheriff will.”

Caroline: “Then he can take them from Lord Savoy. I’ll sure he’d be thrilled to have a visit from his childe.”

GM: Roger rises from his seat.

“It’s too bad, Caroline. We could’ve gone a long ways as friends.”

Caroline: Caroline lays a hand on the ghoul’s cheek.

“Boons, Roger. They’re called boons.”

GM: He calmly removes her hand and looks at Autumn. “Clever girl.”

The other ghoul silently stares back.

Caroline: “I don’t want a war, Roger. I don’t think do you either. I’ll give you a couple of hours. Talk to him. Tell him how incompetent I am. Get a number.”

She pulls a card from her purse and sets it on the table.

“And call me if you do. We can trade. I want this investigation killed and the files on it destroyed. I want coordination with you to ensure a seamless Masquerade ‘death’ as proposed before—I’ve already done all the leg work and vetted it through the prince and the Krewe, and I want a reasonable demand for his loses to date to settle our account. I think you can get that.”

GM: “The prince and the Krewe. He could turn them against you if he doesn’t like it.”

Caroline: “It’s a good look for him. Promotes the family’s interests and image. And Dad’s. The narrative even fits seamlessly into your own facts: that I was increasingly threatened and eventually killed by a bunch of darkies. Much more convincing to all of your own investigators than a convenient accident in the middle of your investigation. Better for the Masquerade.”

GM: “We’ll see if he thinks so.” Ferris turns the card over. “I’ll call you tomorrow night with a location to meet. None of this should be done over phones.”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “I’ll owe you one if you do. You’ll have your backup,” she replies gently.

GM: “And never again at my house.”

Caroline: “Of course not. How strange would it seem if a dead heiress visited the family’s head of security after hours?” Her smile fades again like the setting sun. “Don’t get any ideas in the morning, Roger.”

GM: Ferris walks the two back to the home’s entryway and opens the front door to the night and the steadily plunking rain outside.

“Your family pays me to come up with ideas, Miss Malveaux. Every generation of them.”

A low crack of thunder sounds outside. A brief flash of lightning starkly illuminates the ugly scar tissue of his two missing fingers.

Caroline: “He’d win,” she concedes. “But some battles aren’t worth fighting.”

She turns to take her leave.

Wednesday night, 16 December 2015, PM

GM: The door closes behind Caroline. Rain splashes over her clothes and hair.

Autumn waits for her domitor to unlock the BMW’s doors and gets inside.

“So, what’d you think?”

Caroline: “I think Brian needs to get everyone up for the morning,” she offers as she accelerates away. The words are terse, tight, sharp, her face tight with strain.

“Roger’s capable. Always delivered. We’ll see if he does it again. Otherwise this is going to get very messy.”

GM: “What’s the plan if it does?”

Caroline: “Jump ship,” Caroline replies. A moment later, “Maybe. I don’t think the prince wants a fight right now. Not over this. Not after the trial.”

GM: “Sounds like you’re not sure whether you’re bluffing or not. And yeah, no kidding, he’d side with Father Malveaux any night.” More quietly, “Though it might not even be a fight. The father probably doesn’t need the backup.”

Caroline: “Yeah, but it’d be a bad look. A very bad look, after a trial filled with them, to execute his newly anointed and released member of the flock, especially of any of the details came out.” Why do I always seem to end up against him? she asks herself. “There are only so many masters I can serve at once. Only so long we can kick problems down the line.”

GM: “What do you think it would be like taking up with Savoy?”

Caroline: “Hard.”

GM: “Well, the prince could always execute you without announcing it. I mean… no offense, but who would raise a fuss? Even now that you’re a real Ventrue.”

Caroline: “I don’t think Savoy would miss the opportunity to kick the prince over it.”

GM: “I guess having your death avenged is something.”

Caroline: “No. It isn’t.”

GM: “You need more friends. All the Kindred in the Krewe had each other backing them up, and that was just inside it.”

Caroline: Caroline thinks back to that night a couple of months ago, when things looked so promising. The Storyvilles. Skyman. Release around the corner. Her knuckles tighten over the wheel.

“Ferris is right about one thing. We’re predators. And we’ll all going to take every bit as much as another gives. Eventually you have to show your teeth. Maybe they come anyway. Maybe the flesh on your bones is reason enough. Or maybe it’s not worth your bite. We’ll find out. If I took that deal though, I’d be his slave forever.”

GM: “Yeah, that was probably the intent.” Autumn looks out the car’s rain-slick window. “What do you think of Ferris as an ally?”

Caroline: “Valuable. If he survives. He’s a dangerous man. Ambitious is the wrong word. Calculating might be better. Always looking at the angles, digging for the best play, a stronger position. I think he’ll believe having an ally outside of the good father is worth making an attempt. We’ll find out.”

GM: “You having one who’s not a lick could be useful. Less wheeling and dealing he can do as a ghoul. I’m not sure if he gets that, though. He didn’t seem that deferential around you. Kinda like Diego.”

Caroline: “He doesn’t. Half of what he said tonight…” Caroline shakes her head. “Say that to the wrong Kindred…”

GM: “Yeah, and he’s got Father Malveaux as his domitor… though I guess being a security type could help him there. Turner was always pretty respectful towards you.”

Caroline: Turner. The idea of her body getting dragged out of its grave for this mess lights a match under the Ventrue’s already brewing temper, but Caroline blows it out by changing the subject.

“Call Rebecca. No one is to be alone until this wraps up.”

GM: “Sure. Besides that, is there anything you want me to do or look into for this?”

Caroline: “We’re going to go pay a visit tonight. Other than that, keep your head down like her. I don’t want anyone leaving the building. Honestly, I don’t even want you all opening doors. If they decide to go violent…” She shakes her head in frustration. “You’ve already done great tonight, Autumn.”

GM: “Thanks. Where to?”

Caroline: “Vieux Carré.”

Wednesday night, 16 December 2015, PM

GM: “Miss Malveaux! They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it makes the heart grow sick as well. After you left the Evergreen, I became indisposed and inconsolable; now that you have returned, I am a new Kindred!” Savoy laughs as Fabian pulls out her chair on the Evergreen’s rooftop garden. Caroline had to wait a few hours downstairs, but the Evergreen kept her more than entertained.

Caroline: “That makes us two if a kind then, Lord Savoy, for without your praise I fear I’d wilt like a neglected plant. What a wonderful and terrible fate we’ve found.”

GM: As usual, the process of Caroline visiting Savoy has involved several cab rides taking circuitous routes through the Quarter, all of them pre-arranged by Preston. Savoy has always chuckled that this will simply let Caroline “keep your options open!”

Caroline: “But how fortunate that we’ve found each other with it.”

GM: “I believe the term is interdependence, my dear—and there are some who make the case for it being a more desirable state than independence.”

Caroline: “Like a flower and a bee?” Caroline asks innocently.

GM: “A flower and a bee,” Savoy nods. “Indicative of one’s place within the world as a symbiotic organism and a social animal. We don’t stop being either of those after we die.”

“Instinct does not die with the flesh,” Preston offers in seemingly tacit agreement.

Caroline: “Sadly, it’s stingers I came to discuss this evening.”

GM: “Stingers can present another form of opportunity, Miss Malveaux. A bee dies without its stinger—and sometimes fewer bees are just what we want. What opportunities shall we discuss tonight?”

Caroline: “Father Malveaux.”

GM: The Toreador gestures grandly for Caroline to proceed as Fabian sets down three red-filled crystal glasses.

Caroline: Caroline briefly outlines the father’s minions spying on her and the current unpleasantness surrounding the results of that investigation.

“It’s gotten rather messy.”

GM: “That is a rather sticky situation,” Savoy nods once Caroline is finished. “How would you like to see it play out, my dear?”

Caroline: “Hard to tell, Lord Savoy, it seemed an unusual circumstance. You’ll understand why my thought was to turn to a distinguished elder that might have seen such a thing in the past.” She doesn’t quite smile. “Especially given the delicate political situation right now. Of course I wouldn’t wish to deny one of my elders in clan and covenant his due, but this seems… outside of the normal bounds.”

GM: Savoy laughs at Caroline’s insinuation. “Watch out for this one in fifty years, Nat! Or maybe even come the next Carnival!”

“As you say, sir,” Preston replies.

Caroline: Another not-quite smile. “Nor would I want to cause further unrest in general, especially with the nasty business of the trial only just behind us.”

GM: “Of course not, Miss Malveaux. The all-night society needs time to pause and catch its breath after those events. And so do you! Why,” he remarks thoughtfully, “if that investigation were to run its full course, I don’t suppose you’d have much choice but to fake your death. Would you sooner stop things from getting to that point?”

Caroline: “I’d even understand it if that were his position,” she offers magnanimously. “I imagine few would desire another Kindred so much more tightly bound to their domain than they are… especially given the demands of the Malveaux family, but this seems to go further with the suggestion of indefinite demands related to a seeming Masquerade breach in waiting. Now, I’m only a neonate, so perhaps there’s something I’m missing, but it seems to fly in the face of prestation.”

GM: “And its inherent irresponsibility to the Masquerade,” Preston assesses. “This is hardly the manner of ploy I would normally expect from Father Malveaux, sir.”

“Perhaps we’re not seeing the full picture,” Savoy muses.

“His judgment is far from impartial, sir. Miss Malveaux is entangled with his domain to a greater than normative degree for a newly-released neonate.”

“Should he feel so threatened by her?” Savoy smiles. “No, a foolish question. His position isn’t one I can say I envy.”

“He has expressed concern in this area, Miss Malveaux, that you are overly entangled in his domain?” Preston inquires.

Caroline: “He has,” Caroline grants. “He previously demanded that I fake my mortal death as quickly as feasible, and under terms that he dictated. He has also made other demands, such as not utilizing the gifts of Caine upon any of them.”

“And with some legitimacy—I’ll certainly grant that my Masquerade-keeping was not so careful as it might have been under other circumstances during the matter of René Baristheaut. But to go so far as, in the aftermath, exhuming the bodies of Ms. Turner, and Ms. Polk—one of whom he himself killed—is a step further than I’d expected. After all, there are many things that may divide us, but I had thought the Masquerade the duty of all Kindred to all Kindred.” Another innocent remark.

GM: “Oh, Miss Malveaux, surely you jest.” The smile on the Toreador’s face hasn’t quite fallen, but it’s no longer so full. “One should keep one’s family at arm’s length after the Embrace, of course. Poor Mr. Grunewald has been a lesson to us all there. But family can still ease the transition into the Requiem, and well-adjusted neonates are to the benefit of the entire city. And of course there’ll be the media and police scrutiny when the Malveauxes have another death in the family… surely the good father has attempted to come to some arrangement—find some accommodation that could benefit you both?”

Savoy is frowning. It’s the first time Caroline can remember seeing the expression on his face.

Caroline: “I believe his exact words were that I had one month until he ‘did it for me’. And further that it was to be, exclusively, a tragic accident.”

GM: “Miss Malveaux… this is deeply troublesome,” Savoy answers.

His frown does not abate.

Caroline: “All the more so for me, given the rash of neonates recently executed and the threat to ‘bring down the city’ on me. Once more, you can see why there was only one Kindred in the city whom I thought could offer council on it.”

GM: “This poses numerous threats to the Masquerade at large, the stability of our covenant, and your personal well-being,” the Toreador declares. “Something must be done.”

Caroline: “Perhaps calmer heads may prevail tomorrow evening,” she offers bleakly.

GM: “It’s well and good to trust in others, Miss Malveaux, but one must always be prepared to do the job oneself. No, this can’t progress any further. Leaving aside questions of ‘how’.. what would you consider an ideal resolution to this state of affairs, my dear? Let us assume the good father is as receptive to seeing reason as you yourself are.”

Caroline: “Lord Savoy, I feel I have been more than patient and deferential. I turned the cheek twice in the face of the unprovoked murder of my servants and gruesome attacks on my person by Father Malveaux when in fits of rage. I later apologized to him and swore a major boon. I had hoped when he ceased to be my confessor and our interactions grew less frequent his antagonism would grow less egregious. It has, clearly, not.”

The Ventrue speaks the words cleanly and crisply, but also without passion almost as though reading from a card. “At this point I simply wish an end to the antagonism. For that I’ll gladly trade the comfort of my mortal family—as I had already been planning to do—and even in a way that benefited the interests of his domain—at considerable cost to myself.”

GM: “Of course, Miss Malveaux. Wanting peace between you and non-interference in one another’s domains is all quite reasonable.” Savoy drums his fingers on the iron table thoughtfully. “We also have the Masquerade to consider. You’re right to want something besides an accident. But another death so soon after your brother’s…”

The Toreador doesn’t frown again, but the look on his face grows more solemn. “This may be a great deal to ask, my dear. But if an accommodation were reached with the good father, would you be willing—as a favor to me—to continue living among your mortal family? For either a few years, or if you’re willing to truly place the Masquerade above all—indefinitely?”

Caroline: Caroline leans forward. “While you certainly have far more experience with the Maquerade than I, Lord Savoy, I’m not certain that would not cause more trouble than it might prevent. There are an array of rather public and daytime functions I’m obligated towards by the particular nature of the Malveaux family. Events that are rather difficult to explain absences from.”

GM: Savoy nods. “It won’t be simple or convenient at first, Miss Malveaux. It’ll be a continual balancing act, and an effectively a double life for you to lead. If that’s more than you’re willing or think you’re able to take on, then faking your death may be the best course of action after all.”

“But there are many Kindred who’ve led successful personal masquerades among the kine—I’ve done it myself—some of them under close public or private scrutiny. I’ve seen you handle every challenge that’s come your way, my dear, and I have full confidence that you could rise to this one too.”

An easy smile spreads across the Toreador’s face. “Nor are such challenges without rewards.”

Caroline: “A double life deeply embedded in the personal business of one of the prince’s most staunch allies, and amidst one if the prince’s very own pawns,” Caroline offers warily but leadingly. “Far more than the struggles of a given Masquerade are the struggles created by that ongoing conflict—Father Malveaux is jealous of his domain, and I cannot say I would not be just so in his place.”

GM: The Toreador’s smile doesn’t waver. “All of us must endure inconveniences for the Masquerade, my dear. I’m confident the good father may be made to see reason.”

Caroline: Caroline puts on a pout. “You don’t think I could pull off a convincing ‘death’, Lord Savoy?”

GM: Savoy only chuckles. “You’re not buying what I have to sell, are you, Miss Malveaux?”

Caroline: “I don’t know about that, Lord Savoy.” Caroline’s expression turns on a dime to one of wry amusement. “But you’ll have to share something of what’s in the box.” Another expression shift, a more innocent tone.

“After all, I thought we were simply talking about protecting the Masquerade… you wouldn’t be suggesting that there may be an ulterior motive to your suggestion as to my personal Masquerade among the Malveaux family, would you?”

GM: The Toreador laughs now, full and deep. “You see that, Nat? We’ve underestimated Miss Malveaux. Serves us right.”

“Yes, sir,” the Malkavian dispassionately notes.

“And serves us well to have realized that mistake before the rest of the city,” Savoy remarks slyly.

Caroline: “Oh, not at all, Lord Savoy,” Caroline replies. “I’m just an innocent young neonate without even a sire to teach them the basics. All these complicated politics go right past me.”

GM: “The truth in those words is your cloak, my dear. The lie is your dagger. And I am fortunate not to have been cut any deeper by it!”

“Sir?” Preston queries, looking towards Savoy.

The Toreador nods his head.

“What is the extent of your knowledge regarding Father Malveaux’s mortal background, Miss Malveaux?” Preston asks.

Thursday evening, 12 November 2015

Caroline: Father Malveaux. Her family’s custodian. Her too often foe. While Becky Lynne may report that much of his mortal life—as with most—is irrelevant, Caroline is not idle in her many investigations, especially as resources come online.

His ties to her family are the first—and perhaps easiest—method to run down. How many Malveauxes went missing? How many albinos have they had? His own age and influence makes the task easier for her researchers—none of whom is she foolish enough to have report to her directly—save one. She doesn’t expect much when she raises the topic with her elusive mother, but common foes can make stranger things happen.

The State of Louisiana is old, and corrupt, but its records are just as old—and often available for private researchers. The family of course keeps its own records, though Caroline doesn’t particularly trust them. Between private investigators, researchers, her existing knowledge, and whatever her mother offers she puts together the beginnings of a dossier on the vile old fiend.

GM: Caroline’s tutor neither agrees nor dissents with her on the importance of Father Malveaux’s mortal origins, but simply states that the personal (and mortal) histories of the Gerousia fall outside the scope of her agreement with Gerousiastis Matheson, “Beyond those bits every Ventrue knows.” Becky Lynne is, however, open to striking another arrangement with regards to such information.

Caroline’s mother is more direct and simply asks her what end she intends to use that knowledge towards.

Caroline: Caroline indicates to her mother that she has no specific purpose towards the information beyond gathering it now, that the two have had numerous meetings, and that she’s simply trying to gain a better understanding of him. In the long term it may be part of a move against him, or may simply be part of a means of reaching a better accommodation. She does let on however that the former may be more likely than the latter.

“He’s a monster even by their standards.”

GM: Claire purses her lips initially, then tells Caroline that while it won’t hurt to look into public records, she shouldn’t expect much to come of it. “I already looked, years ago. I’m relatively certain he destroyed them to hide his origins. That was even easier during his mortal lifetime than it is now.”

However, one thing that Father Malveaux cannot destroy so easily is oral history. The Malveauxes know their past as intimately as any other old Southern family. Claire recommends that Caroline talk further with Thomas, the family’s de facto historian. She’s long since done so herself, but the Supreme Court justice’s memory stretches further back than hers ever will.

Nightfall is around 7:30, and Caroline has noticed that she seems to be waking up later than she used to. Together with the time it takes to get dressed and drive somewhere, she has no good excuse to turn down Thomas’ dinner invitation. He’s long since gone home from the office. The Supreme Court justice and his wife Esther receive Caroline pleasantly at their Victorian-style home in the Garden District. Neither of the octogenarians has a great appetite at their age, and they appear to expect the 25-year-old to make up for theirs with the nauseous spoonfuls of pasta with tomato basil sauce, lemon-drizzled grilled asparagus, and two slices of buttery garlic bread they heap onto Caroline’s too-large plate. They make equally false conversation around how Caroline is doing at Tulane, her looming graduation, and her plans for the future after she passes the bar. It’s still better than when Thomas talks about current cases facing the Supreme Court whose details he expects Caroline to know.

Esther eventually declares she’s going to bed. Thomas invites Caroline to continue their conversation outside on the front porch, where they can admire how the oak-lined Garden District almost resembles a shadow-strewn, intermittently lit-up forest past nightfall. Thomas brings out two mugs of coffee punch, a regional confection that consists of coffee mixed with ice cream. He takes vanilla with his, while Caroline is welcome to chocolate if she wants something sweeter. When the subject of discussion finally drifts towards Father Malveaux, the old man nods his head slowly and remarks,

“Yes, there are stories about an albino who was born around the end of the War Between the States. ‘The’ albino, I should say. Always with a ‘the’ in front. I’m not sure what his real name was. Now my grandfather Joseph, who’d be your great-great-grandfather, actually knew him, so maybe I just don’t remember the name. I was young when my granddaddy died in ‘47. Only 14. And he would have been… let me see… oh, actually old enough to be the Albino’s younger brother, maybe by half a decade.”

“The Albino was my grandfather’s paternal uncle, and the youngest child of Andre Malveaux, who was our patriarch during the War Between the States. And Andre’s daughter, the Albino’s sister Monique, is one of the names most floated for bearing the son of Napoleon’s nephew—although if that rumor is true, and Monique was his mother, it would mean neither of us has any Bonaparte blood in our veins. Unless any cousins intermarried to bring it back in.” Thomas smiles with amusement. “But our disputed relation to Napoleon is another topic. Now, Joseph would have been around your age when he last knew the Albino.”

Thomas strokes his chin in thought. “Many old families have stories about the insane uncle locked away in their attic. My grandfather always said the Albino was a strange one. There was how he looked, of course. It goes without saying people were less tolerant 100 years ago. My granddaddy also said he blinked all the time, like a lizard, and developed unsightly rashes under the sun. He would have ‘fits’ whenever he went out in public, too. Grandpa never said what those exactly were, just that it was impossible to take him anywhere. He was small, too. Feeble and sickly. Always down with some illness. My grandfather’s father, the Albino’s brother, always called him ‘the runt of the litter.’”

“He close to the family’s women, though. Always close to them. Especially to his mother Beatrice, who would be your… how many greats is that… great-great-great-great-grandmother, and his sister Monique, who’d be your great-great-great-grand-aunt. They babied him and defended him from his older brothers. Who I’m sure you can guess teased him constantly, brothers being brothers.” Thomas chuckles. “You did grow up with three.”

“The Albino was supposed to have a sharp mind, though—the sharpest in his family’s generation. He devoured books. Read everything in the family library five times over. He had interests in the most peculiar range of fields, from botany to chess to mathematics. None of them were very practical, particularly in his day and age, but I suppose they were harmless. He was also a prolific writer, too. At least of letters. That was how he socialized with people outside the family—he wrote to pen pals he never once met. Beatrice was able to convince Andre to make him an accountant or bookkeeper or some other job along those lines for the family. Something involving books. I think he did well for a while there.”

“I suppose his mother and sister couldn’t baby him forever, though. My grandfather said he started to lose it after Monique was engaged. He was hysterical that he’d die after she left him. That’s what he supposedly said, over and over—that ’he’d die’ if she left him.”

“There’s a particular story, which my granddaddy remembers his father telling him—he tried to slip some nauseous botanical concoction he’d brewed up into the food of Monique’s then-fiancée at a family dinner. The man’s, I don’t remember his name, first dinner with his in-laws. He voided his stomach all over the table. The Albino might have done it to embarrass him and break off the marriage, or maybe just out of spite. Who knows.”

“The Albino couldn’t keep it to himself, though. The rest of the family was livid when they found out. I’m not sure if they cleared things up with the man and Monique still married him, or if Monique married someone else. My grandfather never mentioned her dying a spinster, and I think some of the cousins we have out along the Gulf Coast are her descendants. I’d need to check our genealogies.” Thomas smiles deprecatingly. “My mind’s not as sharp as it used to be.”

“In any case, the Albino got worse after his mother Beatrice died. My grandfather says he became deluded. He raved that he’d found some way in one of his books to mathematically disprove the existence of God, or some other nonsense.”

“Andre sometime died in the early 1890s. Monique probably had her own family. That left the Albino’s oldest brother Leonide as his generation’s patriarch, and the one who held ownership of the family home. I’m not sure if there were any more ‘incidents’ or if his brother simply didn’t want him around anymore. It’s also possible that Leonide truly thought he’d be better off outside the home. Whatever the reason, the Albino was sent to an asylum for the insane sometime in the 1890s.”

The old man frowns faintly. “You have to understand that it took very little to get someone committed to an insane asylum in those days. People could be committed for reasons as flimsy as losing their sons in war or their parents being cousins. So for someone like the Albino, who looked and behaved as strangely as he did, I’m sure it took almost nothing.”

Thomas runs a finger along his lined chin thoughtfully. “He reminds me of Virginia in some ways.”

“He didn’t last very long in the asylum. I think it was only a few years later that he died. Conditions in asylums were significantly improved from the 18th century, but they were obviously still a far cry from anything we’d find acceptable today.”

“Leonide and the family did everything to hush up the circumstances of the Albino’s death, of course. They didn’t want people talking about his relation to the Malveauxes. But I don’t think they had to go to much trouble. He was such a recluse I’m not sure many people even knew he existed—though I suppose that kind of gossip always has ways of spreading too.”

“Leonide died only a few years later himself, ironically. Poor man. The Albino, that is. I suppose he was just born in the wrong era. There are homes for people like him now.”

Caroline: You have no idea, Caroline thinks.

GM: True to Claire’s words, Caroline finds little further evidence of Father Malveaux in public records. However, things have changed since Claire’s day: the computerization of those same scholastic resources makes delving into obscure figures like the Albino much easier. The investigative team headed by Autumn turns up much of the same information as Thomas, though with notably (and unsurprisingly) fewer personal specifics.

However, one detail Autumn discovers that Thomas did not mention is the Albino’s friendship, or at least association, with Paul Morphy. Morphy was the greatest chess master in the world during the mid-19th century and lived much of his life in New Orleans. He seems to have been the one associate the Albino had outside of his immediate family. Morphy’s life is well-documented, and there are several obscure references to him playing games of chess with an albinoid young man. Morphy died in 1884 and is easily researchable upon Wikipedia and other online databases.

Claire supplies the final pieces in Caroline’s investigation into Father Malveaux’s mortal past. She confirms the general authenticity of Thomas’ narrative, though she admits many of the specific details are impossible to verify. She also has a name attached to the Albino: Benjamin. She does not explain where she learned it from, nor why she believes it to be a pseudonym and as false as Caroline’s continued pretensions of mortality. “The Albino suits him better anyway.”

Caroline: “Maybe,” Caroline offers. “Though he prefers Father Malveaux.”

GM: Her mother simply stares at that declaration, then says tightly, “Bright lights. He’s extremely sensitive to them.”

Caroline: “A meeting on a sunny beach then,” Caroline quips. “Noon time?”

GM: Her mother isn’t laughing.

“This is no joking matter, Caroline,” she replies severely. “I don’t want you doing something foolish like snapping a flash camera in his face. Once he knows you know his weakness, you will be lucky if he merely tries to expunge it from your memory. And he would follow that source right back to me.”

Caroline: Caroline gives a short laugh, but it’s a bitter and cynical, rather than mirthful sound. “What do you think I’m going to do, Mother? Taunt him? Attack him physically? Any direct conflict like that between us could only end poorly for me, no matter how poorly it also ended for him. If this comes to a conflict it’ll be fought with knives in the back, not swords in hand.”

GM: The nonplussed look on her mother’s face abates only slightly. “You’re welcome, by the way.”

Caroline: Caroline’s own expression softens. “I’m sorry. It’s…” She doesn’t show the weight of the last months quite as her mother does, but it weighs on her all the same. “I don’t have as many conversations as I’d like. To say nothing of mundane family concerns and trying to set up everything.” She shakes her head.

GM: Her mother’s lips relax into a simply pursed position. “Tell me what you intend to do with that information.”

Caroline: “For now? Nothing. Build a better profile for him. Try to get inside his head… for what little that’s worth.”

“I feel like I’m forgetting what it’s like to actually talk to people.” Left unsaid is the rest of it. That she’s forgetting what it’s like to be human.

GM: “Talk with more people, then. We lose our skills if we don’t practice them.”

Caroline: “I’ve been a bit preoccupied with planning my ‘death’. Not exactly a conversation starter.”

GM: Her mother gives a tired shrug. “Then if you can’t find time, it’ll likely continue to slide away from you. Balancing the obligations doesn’t get any easier.”

Caroline: “Don’t they?” Caroline asks. “It gets easier and easier. And that’s the problem.”

Wednesday night, 16 December 2015, PM

Caroline: Caroline leans back at Preston’s question, her tone light.

“Nominally born between 1864 and 1866 to Andre and Beatrice Malveaux. Quite the odd one from the beginning. Antisocial but highly intelligent, capable of keeping up with the likes of Paul Morphy at chess. Grew more unstable over time until his eventual committal—and presumably Embrace.”

GM: Savoy gives a hearty laugh. “Now would you listen to that, Nat! The Nosferatu would be jealous.”

Caroline: “That’s their sin, right?” Caroline offers.

GM: “A two-fold sin for them where you are concerned, my dear.”

Caroline: “We all must bear our crosses.”

GM: “Some of them the very same crosses born by others,” Savoy answers, but the twinkling amusement in his eye is gone. “Would you also describe the good father as a jealous individual, Miss Malveaux?”

Caroline: “Honestly, Lord Savoy, from what I’ve seen there’s plenty of all seven sins within him, though none so much as wrath.”

GM: “We are concerned that Father Malveaux is mentally unstable and a danger to the city,” Preston states without preamble.

Caroline: Caroline arches an eyebrow. “Generally, or specifically?”

GM: “Your information is not new to us, Miss Malveaux, and thus neither is our concern,” the bespectacled Kindred answers.

Caroline: Caroline eyes the older vampire. “My information is not new to you, Madam Preston?” she intones carefully.

GM: “If you have a specific question, Miss Malveaux, I advise you to ask it rather than whether my last words were accurate. Do you believe I am likely to tell you they are not?” Savoy’s steward answers humorlessly.

Caroline: “My apologies, Madam Preston, I simply sought to provide an opportunity to clarify. I’m certain that Lord Savoy wouldn’t want to suggest, for instance, that his agents were spying on neonates or the prince’s agents,” Caroline defers with apparent sincerity. “Presumably your comments spoke to a pattern of behavior on the part of Father Malveaux reinforced by my tale?”

GM: Savoy smiles amusedly at the mention of his not spying on either. “Fool me once, shame on me, Miss Malveaux. Fool me twice, shame me twice.”

“That is correct,” Preston answers to the Ventrue’s query.

Caroline: Caroline laughs lightly at the lord of the French Quarter’s remark. “The night may come, Lord Savoy, when we may speak even ugly truths to each other. For now though, I think we must satisfy ourselves with speaking only those convenient.”

She smiles back at Preston. “You’ll forgive me, Madam Preston, for saying, while I may share your view, somehow doubt that much of the city will agree when speaking to a respected century-old Kindred that has managed to avoid making a great mess of himself to date.”

GM: “I can’t conceive of any words that could be made ugly after passing lips so fair as yours, my dear,” the Toreador lazily replies.

Caroline: “Might I suggestion caution, Lord Savoy? I do so enjoy a challenge.”

GM: Savoy gestures grandiosely for Caroline to proceed with her thoughts.

Caroline: She lets lie that matter and proceeds along their original topic. “Even if he were unstable, I suspect few would be especially concerned given his relative reclusiveness and position under the thumb of the prince.”

GM: Savoy nods. “Until we have proof to confirm my good steward’s suspicions, the matter’s not much more than hearsay. It’s possible he might even be sound of mind. It’s hard to say without a personal examination of the good father-”

“He has little love for Lord Savoy’s partisans and is unlikely to provide us with such an opportunity,” Preston interjects.

“-and maybe this all amounts to nothing. But you don’t make it to my age, Miss Malveaux, without learning to take precautions against every eventuality. If you’re amenable, that’s where you come in.”

Caroline: “Why, Lord Savoy, if only you had some means to bait him out,” Caroline offers innocently.

GM: “And more than even that, my dear. Someone with an insider’s knowledge of the Malveauxes, just to keep an eye on things. There’s been rather too much Kindred attention on a family as high-profile as them of late.”

Caroline: “If you’ll pardon my saying so, Lord Savoy, that’s asking someone to take a rather high dive into a rather small pool.”

GM: Savoy inclines his head.

“And it’s just for that reason, Ms. Malveaux, I wouldn’t begrudge her decision not to. But if she did, I’d be there right next to her with a shovel. Digging that pool deeper. And I would not soon forget such aid.”

Caroline: Dad, stop following me around. The expression pops out, one of his favorites. He’d always felt that ‘out on a limb’ gave too much credit to blind luck, rather than margins of error and skill.

What is she even doing here? Sitting across the table from the lord of the French Quarter. The rival to the prince, her sire, who already has already seen a death sentence laid upon her, contingent on more than one of the things that Savoy is asking her.

The safe play would have been to take the deal. Suffer under the thumb of Father Malveaux… an unpleasant existence perhaps, but a continued one. This isn’t simply playing with fire, standing here so close to Savoy, it’s soaking her dress in gasoline first. And yet… something refuses to bow to the demented albino. Was all the more infuriated by the threat of the sheriff’s action. Was deeply offended by Roger’s outright threats. The suggestion—however true—that she might simply be swept from the board.

Time and again the prince has hung her out to dry, has set her up, has put her in impossible positions as part of some deeper game she is not privy too. Has threatened her. Seen her tortured. Seen her nearly ended how many times, and and all of it more than any other at the hands of his own cruel servants. Especially those two.

An opportunity to bring down Father Malveaux, to hurt him, to show him she is not simply some peasant to be swept aside. It’s so tempting. It’s insane, but as Caroline leans back, she can’t help but find herself thinking. Weighting. Considering. Like a bait fisher Savoy has lured her in one mouthful at a time, one little handout, but is it so bad? Would it be so bad to throw in with him, even if he is all for show. As kind and gentle as a politician. She’s already done worse in her earnest attempts to satisfy her sire. Even if Savoy is a tyrant in truth, could he be a worse tyrant for her than her sire already has been? Isn’t he in the ascent? Might she not carve out a place here?

A great deal to consider. Her eyes cut from Preston to her master, and back. A few more steps out along the knife’s edge, walking towards the tip, balanced on the tipping point. It cuts her, but not so much as the tip will if she gets there without picking a side. At that point there won’t be any time left to make the choice.

To one side the perhaps false comfort of Savoy. To the other the abyss of her sire’s faction, seemingly out to destroy every piece of her bit by bit. The wind is blowing. Pushing her in one direction. She looks down to check her footing on the edge. Can she resist it now, even if she wishes?

GM: The French Quarter lord merely maintains the same easy smile he wears as casually as his silk sports coat.

“It’s a lot to think about, Miss Malveaux. Maybe you’d care to take a few nights to weigh things over.”

Caroline: She gives a smile. “That’s very generous, Lord Savoy, but I fear the die is better cast earlier in the game.”

GM: “You know, Miss Malveaux, Nat once passed me a pearl of wisdom she picked up from another Kindred, back in the city she was Embraced.” He glances appreciatively towards his lieutenant.

“‘An immortal’s ambitions will never outlive them’,” the Malkavian recites.

“That means, my dear, there’s no hurry,” Savoy smiles leisurely. “I don’t believe either of us is about to die anytime soon. Oh, there are moments that we believe are ‘now or never’. But you’d be surprised how many of those you run into when you have forever.”

The Toreador chuckles to himself at the rhyme.

Caroline: “There are certainly… other concerns with remaining in contact with my family,” Caroline admits.

GM: “Family is always complicated. Alive or dead,” the French Quarter lord agrees.

Caroline: “So I’ve learned. I suspect my confessor would be rather disappointed though if I remained in contact with them however.”

GM: “Perhaps he would,” Savoy muses. “You’ve found someone to replace the good father, I presume?”

Caroline: “Father Elgin,” Caroline provides, “has been quite instructive. He’s helped me come to better terms with my Embrace.”

GM: The Toreador grins. “Beauty and the beast, on the surface. But things are always deeper than the surface with the Hidden Clan.”

Caroline: “So I’ve found as well, Lord Savoy. It’s with some irony that I might pronounce them the fairest of them all, among those I’ve dealt with.”

GM: “They know better than any clan what it means to be mistreated,” Savoy answers—not quite solemnly, but without his typical mirth. “They lead hard Requiems, one and all. Even those with sires and broods to support them.”

Caroline: “It helped to cast a rather different light on my own pity party regarding my Embrace,” Caroline agrees. “But he was rather clear on the theological point—and a sharp one at that—that continued association with mortals—particularly those from before one’s Embrace is sinful.”

GM: “God’s wolves must blend in among the sheep, but they must never forget their place as wolves,” Preston states.

“So the scripture tells us, Nat,” Savoy concurs before turning back to Caroline. “What’s your opinion there, my dear?”

Caroline: “Opinion in most matters of faith too often tends towards blasphemy,” Caroline answers carefully. “Among both Kindred and kine, but between the Eighth Canon’s guidance to be wary of dealings with the kine and of attachment to them, and the Second Canon’s wisdom on the Masquerade and the difficulty of maintaining a life among them, it would seem the intent of the Testament that we be limited in our dealings. Most have extended this explicitly to severing ties to mortal families, for they inherently pull us towards violation of both Canons.”

GM: “Most have,” Savoy nods. “Tell me, Nat, what’s the term for those Kindred tonight… the ones who have so many princes in an uproar?”

“Cleavers, sir,” Preston fills in.

“Cleavers,” the French Quarter lord nods again. “You hear many stories about them, Miss Malveaux?”

Caroline: “Regretfully not,” the Ventrue replies.

GM: “As the name implies, they’re Kindred who try to cleave to an ordinary mortal life and raise mortal families. Some move in with a lover and their child. Others rescue children in unfortunate home situations. A few have children from before their own Embrace. And haven’t a few managed some even more remarkable contrivances, Nat?”

“Yes, sir,” the Malkavian answers. “There have been accounts of Kindred—neonates, of course—with frozen eggs or sperm seeking surrogates to bear their children. Though how and where they obtained their brats hardly has bearing on the problem.”

Caroline: The thought, which might have had some appeal months or even weeks ago, sparks almost immediate revulsion in Caroline. “Ghastly.”

She has seen firsthand what happens to mortals that get too close. She’s watched her own curse destroy the lives of many close to her—Aimee not the least among them. The memory of coming to in a frenzy with her best friend’s blood on her hands and the girl laying at her feet in a pile of broken glass—her face a bloody ruin—is all too vivid. Introducing children, or a lover, or a husband into that.

“I can imagine few more foolish courses of action, even if they truly cling to their affection.” There’s steel in her voice.

GM: Savoy nods. “It almost always ends in tragedy—for the cleavers themselves, for their kine families, and for the Masquerade at large. They aren’t a new phenomenon, not really. But it’s easier for them to spread their message—and garner sympathetic ears—than in earlier times.”

Caroline: “Which sympathetic ears might those be, Lord Savoy?” The Ventrue asks.

GM: “Neonates, Anarchs, and particularly those Kindred who are both,” Preston answers.

Caroline: “Self-determination and all that. Stay out of my business types?”

GM: “‘Any and all ’types’ who believe their personal desires outweigh the Masquerade—or who simply fail to grasp the consequences of their actions.”

Caroline: “I presume the relevance here is in drawing a distinction between such behavior and other more moderate behaviors?” There’s a knowing, precocious, smile on her face.

GM: “Something like that, my dear,” the Toreador smiles back, stroking his half-beard as he goes on,
“I’m sure you’re no stranger to French history, but to give us all a refresher… after Louis the Great became king in his own right, he moved the royal residence and thus the de facto French capital his father’s former hunting lodge in Versailles. His nobles and courtiers all moved with him; he and his predecessors had established a highly centralized bureaucracy where nothing could be accomplished without the king’s approval.”

“Louis took that style of governance still further, and made every aspect of life at Versailles revolve around his person. In the Royal Chapel, his pew alone faced the altar; the other pews faced him. No one could eat before he breakfasted. He would then announce his schedule for the day, and all of the court would make their plans accordingly. Courtiers had to be sure to know the correct form of address, the correct hour at which to approach the king, or even how to knock on his door correctly.” Savoy winks. “Scratch lightly with the pinky finger of the left hand. It could be helpful to grow that nail extra long.”

“The consequence to all this, of course, was that attendance at court was mandatory for anyone who wanted to exercise real power in France. Or even maintain their power.”

Caroline: “Another cautionary tale this one, Lord Savoy? I wonder who this might allude to.”

GM: “Oh no, my dear. Far from a cautionary tale. He was the greatest monarch in French history. Arguably in all history, though I suppose I am biased there,” Savoy smiles contentedly.

“For you see, Louis knew how to bait his traps with honey. The Duc de Saint-Simon referred to Versailles as a ‘gilded cage’ for the nobility. What a cage it was. A Green of Mirrors that tourists still flock to view. Paintings and sculptures by the era’s finest artisans. Jardins à la française that stretched as far as the eye could see. A massive, hundreds-large staff of servants that saw to residents’ every earthly need. Historians believe the maintenance of Versailles consumed up to a quarter of the French state’s entire yearly revenues.”

“But the question I have to put to your keen mind, Miss Malveaux, is how do you believe Versailles impacted the Requiems of the Kindred in Paris—this magnificent capital that seemed to spring up all but overday?”

Caroline: Caroline pauses for a moment in consideration, “I imagine it created remarkable opportunity, but also remarkable hardship, among the Kindred of Paris,” she replies carefully, filtering the image through her own growing understanding of the all-night society.

“Some elders doubtlessly made the move, but many more probably did not. In either case it created an influx of opportunity in both Paris and Versailles, in which those able to navigate shifting waters would have had significant opportunity. I imagine it probably allowed the exceptional to rise to the top.”

GM: “As sharp a mind as ever, my dear,” Savoy smiles. “Indeed it did. Prince Beatrix relocated to Versailles, along with many of her favorites—my sire fortunately among them. That left openings in Paris. Her seneschal all but ruled the city. As go the kine, so go we Kindred.”

Caroline: “And there the lord of the French Quarter was forged?” There’s a levity to her reply, a hint of wry amusement.

GM: “We’ll come to his part in the tale soon enough, my dear,” Savoy grins.

“But Versailles wasn’t Paris. Paris was one of the dirtiest and most overcrowded cities in Europe. Wolves actually hunted the streets—even kine in those streets!—come winter. Even hundreds of years ago, it was larger than New Orleans is now. We could feed to our heart’s content there.”

“Versailles had a few thousand souls at most. Many of them were important people, whose deaths wouldn’t pass without consequence. Security was quite strict, for the time. But there was another element of risk to the Masquerade. Many of us had been Embraced from among the nobility. Even among the older Kindred there—well, the kine knew their histories and families. Many had busts and portraits of their ancestors. The risk was even greater for the young ones among us. The Kindred who still had living families and acquaintances.”

“Versailles was irresistible to us. Louis was an intoxicating presence in his own right, and he had concentrated an unprecedented degree of power in equally incomparably resplendent surroundings. A deft Kindred could pluck the chords of power from the Sun King’s court, and watch that note reverberate across all of Europe.”

“No, we could no more stay away from Versailles than moths could resist stay away from an open lamp. But fly too close, and we could get burned. The Masquerade was paper-thin.”

Caroline: Caroline nods along in understanding as this story comes full circle.

GM: “How do you imagine that we did it, my dear? How did we walk the golden tightrope that Louis’ court posed—where no Kindred could go anonymous, yet could not be known for what—and so often, who—they were?”

Caroline: “I confess, I’ve considered many options along that vein Lord Savoy. How I might go about it today. A shameful secret to hide the truth behind to many and create enough distance for a time. Simple cosmetics to create the appearance of some aging over time. I understand some disciplines can alter one’s appearance, so presumably one might create multiple identities over time.”

She counts them down. “Other disciplines that might befuddle others in the moment, or even permanently alter their memories of you—though the former is limited in its long term applications and the latter in how other Kindred tend to react when their mortals are touched.”

“Still, most of these, over time, simply prolong the problem. Even if you might flawlessly grow old over time—a tedious process no doubt—you are creating new potential problems with each new generation you interact with, even if you attempt to reinvent yourself each lifetime. One option might be to leap cities every couple decades, but that’s not only dangerous, but all the more problematic for how it would force one to start over all the more often.”

“Of course, there is the obvious one—to seek your fellowship and fellows in the shadow of such society. To meet in the night among Kindred beings and, as needed, draw in the rare mortals to fill those night with added interest. I confess, I have no good answer Lord Savoy. Merely an array of barely passable.”

GM: “This is an unforgivably crass thing to utter in the presence of a woman as enchanting as yourself, Miss Malveax, but let’s talk about me for now,” Savoy smiles self-deprecatingly. “The Sun King only lived in Versailles for a few decades before he died and the court moved back to Paris. How do you imagine that I maintained the Masquerade—my Masquerade—behind that most delicate of facades during those years?”

“I had family too, you know. Parents. Siblings. Lovers. Children. Not all in Versailles. But enough.”

Caroline: “Presuming, Lord Savoy, that you didn’t simply overwhelm them with your charm?” Caroline asks rhetorically in response to his complement before continuing, “I would imagine you, created a degree of distance between them and yourself without entirely fading from view. Expanded your interests perhaps into new areas. Drove away your lovers in subtle ways. Built an image that allowed for your inaccessibility by day and occasionally eccentric behavior. Surrounded yourself, in part, with ghouls and others that could explain and assure others.”

GM: “I’ve no doubt that your charms could have accomplished such a feat, my dear, but I fear my own to be so very inadequate in comparison,” Savoy grins.

“But as for creating distance…” The Toreador strokes his half-beard in thought again. “Perhaps in Paris or New Orleans I could have managed that. The Kindred in Versailles were surrounded by luxuries, but that was one we were denied.”

“The palace was huge—but not huge enough. Its population was massive—but not massive enough. There were maybe six, seven thousand people at most. Many of them servants and soldiers of low birth. The Sun King’s real court only included so many people.”

“I could have driven away my lovers. But they would have talked about me—and soon, everyone would have known, and been hungry for the sordid details. I couldn’t have avoided them, either. The palace was too small. Everyone knew each other. Everyone knew each other’s tawdry gossip.”

Caroline: Caroline gestures freely. “I confess, Lord Savoy, you have me at a loss as to how such a thing was managed.”

GM: “It was all-too simple, my dear. I never died.”

Caroline: “And explaining away your nighttime proclivities?” Caroline asks. “Certainly remaining ‘alive’ must have had its own consequences even then. Certainly remaining ‘alive’ must have had its own consequences even then.”

GM: “There are always loopholes and ways around such things, my dear,” Savoy winks. “The Sun King’s daily routine was meticulously scheduled, and the routine of every soul in the palace revolved around it. That made things very easy to plan around.”

Caroline: “The explain was simply a function of your personality, presumably, Lord Savoy,” Caroline replies. After a moment she continues, “It is an interesting argument, that not immediately faking one’s death may be better for the Masquerade in the long term, assuming one is able to properly manage it. It does beg the, if not now, then when question however.”

GM: “Never, for some of us,” Savoy smiles.

Caroline: “Oh? Are you great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather Savoy to a slew of adorable French children? Christmas cards and all that?”

GM: The Toreador laughs. “I’ve wondered that myself more than once, my dear. It’s comforting to think that some part of me might still be around, outside the all-night society. I couldn’t say either way. Between all the wars and revolutions that sprang up during my nap, it’s anyone’s guess whether I still have any living descendants.”

Caroline: Caroline flinches, just a hair, at the turn in topic away from the Masquerade to mortal lines and potential children, though her smile doesn’t waver. “For some, I suspect, it’s better not to know.”

GM: “Mmm, yes. Certainly for them.”

Caroline: “What I alluded to though was more that eventually one must fade in their agelessness. Easier, I suppose, when one jumps continents.”

GM: Savoy leans forward slightly in his chair. " There are always loopholes, Miss Malveaux, my dear."

Caroline: “You present a compelling alternative, Lord Savoy,” Caroline replies.

GM: “Most of us choose to disappear from kine society after a few decades. We hunker down for a few decades, and then reappear. But that isn’t always convenient.” The Toreador smiles. “Or much fun.”

“As Sanctified, we are wolves among the mortal flock. But outside of metaphors, wolves aren’t known for their camouflage. So some of us learn to be leopards.”

Caroline: “I thought they couldn’t change their spots?”

GM: “There are always loopholes, my dear,” Savoy repeats. “You ever watch any Karen Anatos movies?”

Caroline: “Of course, I suspect most have,” Caroline replies.

GM: “What about some of the older Mistress Black slasher flicks? Those would have been popular around when you were born.”

Caroline: “I’m familiar with them,” Caroline replies noncommittally.

GM: “Perhaps you prefer the classics,” Savoy smiles. “Damsel in the Wilderness hasn’t survived the ravages of the years, alas, but Lily Thorn starred in a number of other silent German expressionist films. You think you might have seen any of them?”

Caroline: “It’s possible, though if so I can’t say they made an impression on me at the time, Lord Savoy.”

GM: “Maybe her daughter Rose Thorn made a greater impression on your parents or grandparents? She made her debut in When No Means Yes with Ginger Swan. She played a supporting role there, but it wasn’t long before her star blazed just as bright.” Savoy smiles again. “There’s no movie era that evokes nostalgia quite like Hollywood’s golden age.”

Caroline: “I’d have to ask.” Caroline frowns faintly as she thinks back and continues, “Movie nights were a rarity. Always too many ‘important’ things to consider between my mortal father’s campaigns and my mother’s social functions. To say nothing of music lessons, fencing instruction, and language tutors for myself.” She counts them off on her fingers. “There wasn’t a great deal of time for those activities I think some families do.”

GM: “Do you regret that, my dear?” Savoy asks.

Caroline: The Ventrue pauses to think. “I think I didn’t know another way, even if it still stung that my father was so distant. That perhaps I assumed that pain, the void, was just normal, the way it was. And I think it had its benefits.” She continues with only a small pause, “And its determents.”

GM: “There’s a certain liberty in that, for all the hardship it carries when growing up,” Savoy muses. “Affectionate parents have their child’s affection to abuse or reciprocate, as they please. Parents who are tyrants will forever tyrannize their children’s minds. Your father’s character is your own to judge, and act on, as you see fit.”

Caroline: “I suppose absent is preferable to actively hostile,” Caroline muses. “I imagine too though it must weigh on a parent in their own ways, the various ways in which their relationships with their children may turn.”

Not that she’ll ever know. Decisions made in what feels like a lifetime ago made all the more final by choices beyond her then limited vision.

GM: “Oh yes. It has weighed upon my own,” Savoy agrees with a faint smile. “But I don’t like to think about others’ choices for too long, Miss Malveaux. We don’t get to pick those, even with Caine’s gifts. Not really. Only our own.”

Caroline: “Might I ask you a more personal question along those lines, Lord Savoy?” the Ventrue asks quietly.

GM: The Toreador gestures grandiosely for Caroline to proceed.

Caroline: “Does it bother you, that your childe, for his successes, took up with Prince Vidal with such hostility? Does it ever sting?”

The question is asked politely. Calmly. But the savageness in her eyes, the hurt, belies her conversational tone.

GM: Preston does not speak, but looks up from her tablet at her boss.

The lord of the French Quarter slowly drums two fingers against the wrought-iron table. “Donovan has proven himself a great asset to Prince Vidal’s rule, my dear, as you say. It’s a testament to just how great an asset that so many Kindred now think he could succeed the prince. More than one gossip in Elysium has commented on how our prince treats him with all the regard one would show their own childe. What a coup de grâce such a move would be. Prince Donovan, childe of Augusto Vidal in all but blood!”

“I am proud of him, my dear. I am proud to have Embraced and mentored a Kindred who rose to such heights—a rise that is all the more remarkable for his origins. Few sires would all but adopt their archrival’s childe as their own. For one like Augusto Vidal to do so… truly, that is extraordinary.”

“In many ways, I consider Donovan to be my coup de grâce. My greatest triumph.”

Antoine Savoy’s face goes still. He does not smile. He does not frown. He does not speak. For a moment, the Lord of the French Quarter whom Caroline has always seen in a seemingly endless dance of social motion simply goes still. The effect is not unlike watching an aged Hollywood starlet with her makeup finally off.

His green eyes linger on hers. The silence stretches.

Finally, he replies, “That’s what makes his loss sting all the more.”

Caroline: Caroline meets the lord of the French Quarter’s gaze steadily in his stillness. Finally she nods, perhaps in understanding, or perhaps in satisfaction.

The silence is deafening before, after a long moment, she replies softly, “I wonder, would it be the same for my own sire?”

She continues quietly, “I didn’t have an opportunity to ask when I so briefly met him.”

GM: Savoy doesn’t quite smile again. The look on his face is fainter, and perhaps more somber than that. And knowing.

“Your sire was a devout man in life. His faith did not lapse in death. So much of what he did came down to faith. So much of his anger. So much of his rage at the failures of this city and its denizens to live up to his faith.”

“‘Politics is not personal.’ That’s advice many sharp men and women have given, in so many different words.” The outline of Savoy’s almost-smile grows a little firmer.

Caroline: “Others might disagree. Some would argue it’s all personal. All in who you know, and your personal relationships with them.”

Still, the heiress is clearly glued to the Toreador’s every word.

GM: Savoy rests his hand against Caroline’s. “Your sire would agree with them, my dear. All of his political decisions have been personal. Intensely personal.”

“You ask me if his own childe’s repudiation would hurt him. My answer is yes. Yes, it would.”

Caroline: Caroline stares back at the lord of the French Quarter, the two dead beings caught in an unnatural stillness that only those who have abandoned such trivial matters as breathing can accomplish. Only her eyes waver, as do her thoughts, caught between Scylla and Charybdis.

The wind blows, and she falls towards one.

“It is my intent, Lord Savoy, to take this matter with Father Malveaux before others in Clan Ventrue. It betrays no Ventrue secrets to tell you that the clan prefers to see disputes handled in-house.”

“I think my pitch shall be, in part, that the heightened scrutiny this matter has brought to my mortal identity makes a convenient mortal death simply too suspicious in the immediate future.”

GM: “Very diplomatic, Miss Malveaux. Never give anyone a reason to paint you as the villain,” Savoy smiles.

Caroline: Caroline smiles back. “Wise counsel as always, Lord Savoy. I think I shall even be graceful enough as to give Father Malveaux an easy excuse. Perhaps an eager to please ghoul that exceeded their mandate.”

GM: “Even better to have an actual villain on hand to blame!” the French Quarter lord chuckles. “I’ve a few friends in the Structure, my dear. If you’d care, I can put you in touch with them. Sympathy and support are like a third haven—always useful to have, even if you don’t ever use it.”

Caroline: “One of my law professors once said ‘the truth speaks for itself,’ but that ‘it was also smart enough to shop around for judges’.”

“That offer is very generous, Lord Savoy. But rather than asking an outsider to the Structure to exert his influence inside it—and yes, I know you’d never intentionally do something so crass, but even the words of someone in your position carry influence—I might instead ask if there was anyone in particular you might think open to hearing the tale of a sireless neonate? Or whom might be predisposed to view Father Malveaux as anything other than an upstanding member of the All-Night Society?”

GM: “Reynaldo Gui is the first local who comes to mind,” the French Quarter lord answers, stroking his half-beard. “He’s from Chicago. Our covenant doesn’t take quite so hardline a stance on things up north.”

“But it’s the current visitors to our fair city, I think, who might not only be the most moved—but inspire locals to move in turn. Miss Lin-Mei and Mr. Becker represent foreign interests within our city—and a rather influential one in the former’s case, at that.” The Toreador smiles again. “There’s nothing like having company over that makes anyone antsy to tidy up their house.”

Caroline recalls the other two Ventrue from the clan’s last monthly gathering.

“…reputation is worth more than blood, after all, my dear,” Savoy smiles.

Caroline: “That’s an idea I hadn’t considered,” Caroline admits. The sparkle in the Ventrue’s eyes, however, makes it clear it’s one she rather appreciates.

“I confess though, Lord Savoy, my largest concern is that before such a meeting might be possible, your own childe might come beating down my door. Father Malveaux’s ghoul was not wrong in alluding to his potency within the prince’s bloc, and my own lack of popularity among them. I can think of few outcomes to visit from the sheriff to my haven that end well for me—and I’ve tried so hard to put that part of my Requiem behind me.”

GM: “And I believe it’s one we’d all benefit from staying behind you, my dear. What would you suggest we do to keep things that way?”

Caroline: “I might first ask, Lord Savoy, do you think it likely that Father Malveaux could rapidly leverage the sheriff in such a way?”

GM: Savoy strokes his half-beard again. “The two are known to be close allies. I’m sure you recall the good father’s participation alongside my childe in the hunt for Mr. Baristheaut. It’ll depend, too, how occupied my childe currently is. The sheriff is a busy Kindred!”

“The sheriff could have Father Malveaux in his debt for substantive enough aid, sir,” Preston raises. “Most Kindred would leap at the chance to assist an ally by moving against a mutual enemy. And of course, there is the question of whether Father Malveaux even requires the sheriff’s assistance if he wishes to remove Miss Malveaux from the board,” the Malkavian impersonally assesses.

Caroline: “It would likely depend on his level of commitment and willingness to lose both the social and actual capital,” Caroline replies.

GM: “Absence of the former does much to insulate the latter. Your standing in Kindred society remains negligible, Miss Malveaux.”

Caroline: “True, but any move by a Ventrue against a Ventrue without first bringing the matter before the Structure is unlikely to play well.”

GM: “Unless the matter is never brought before the Structure and his blame is not readily obvious.”

“I think we can all agree that if the good father is making such overt moves against Miss Malveaux, things have moved rather too far along already,” Savoy states, then chuckles. “And that we’ve fumbled the ball if it does! What would you suggest we do, my dear, to best make sure things can’t get to that point?”

Caroline: “I can think of several possibilities,” Caroline begins. She goes on to explain that the surest method is trying to bring the matter before others as quickly as possible: while destroying a status-less neonate may be within the power of a Kindred as influential as Father Malveaux, the matter would be complicated significantly for him once others know of it." She laughs. “You know how we Ventrue are about our public perception, Lord Savoy.”

She regards this meeting as the first major step in that direction. “After all, I’m certain someone of your benevolence, Lord Savoy, wouldn’t sit ideally by and watched a young neonate be waylaid when you knew the truth of the political landscape.” There is perhaps a whisper of extra meaning to that statement.

The heiress is not immediately concerned for her physical safety. “The benefits of not living in glass houses anymore,” she laughs, and intendeds on bringing the matter before a more senior Ventrue as soon as possible, but until then wonders if there is any other insurance he might recommend, or steps she might take.

Finally she comes along to the long term, returning to Preston’s (Madam Preston’s) ‘excellent’ point about how vulnerable a young neonate without any significant standing is. She remarks on how easy it is for young Kindred to attract attention for the wrong reasons, rather than the right, and inquires as to whether or not he’s heard anything as to her plans and activities providing relatively mild services and activities for other neonates, and as to whether he’d knows of any other Kindred that might appreciate such aid, alluding to the many Kindred that he ‘magnanimously’ extends his wing over to assist, and how she’d be grateful for the opportunity to assist in those endeavors when matters might present low hanging fruit within her reach to assist in.

Unless he has a better idea? There’s a gleam of political cunning in the idea, and an invitation for another suggestion from him.

GM: “There may be a few things that come to mind, my dear, a few things,” the French Quarter lord muses with a soft chuckle.

He’s of course already recommended that she seek to engender herself with her local and visiting clanmates. Even if their support doesn’t end up being necessary now, that sort of thing is good to have anyways in the long term. Savoy can ask Reynaldo Gui to provide introductions, should she desire them.

He also adds she could consider establishing a secondary haven, if she hasn’t already. In New Orleans, or beyond. “Just as insurance, my dear—one never knows how things can turn out. Eggs and baskets, after all.”

Preston adds that if she were the sheriff, enlisting Rocco’s cooperation in orchestrating a hit on her haven would be the first thing she’d do. Savoy’s lieutenant does not believe that winning goodwill among neonates is likely to be conductive to the Ventrue’s immediate interests. How long does she expect Father Malveaux to wait before taking action against her?

“True enough, Nat. I’d also look for ways to work any clan elders she wants to get on her immediate side,” Savoy muses. It’s one matter to approach them with evidence of Father Malveaux’s wrongdoing—and another to do that with leverage over them, be it hard or (easier for her) soft.

“Everyone has weak spots, Miss Malveaux—to either exploit, or help them shore up,” the Toreador smiles.

Matheson’s are well-known, and Caroline has a further in with the Whitneys. Guilbeau has his trysts with young neonates that he’s no longer so open concerning. McGinn has his racism when his name is being floated as a princely successor.

Caroline: The heiress discusses that topic for a few minutes more, but finally smiles as the audience draws to a close.

“Thank you for your time, Lord Savoy. I hope this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It’s a shame my sire couldn’t be here to see it.”

Caroline V, Chapter XV
Abélia's Reward

“What parts of yourself will you sacrifice for power?”
Abélia Devillers

Friday night, 4 December 2015, PM

GM: The evening at Commander’s Palace concludes with Lyman and Abélia splitting the dinner bill, which they subsequently third with Warren at his insistence. Nolan offers to chip in, which Adeline laughingly tells him is silly (“you barely had anything!”). He retorts he “stole some of your dessert!” Abélia and the Whitneys accede to letting him pay the servers’ tips. Chuck tells him he’s overtipping them. Nolan laughs it off. Caroline can’t imagine that Lyman is any happier with his granddaughter’s boyfriend’s behavior, but he holds his tongue under the present and joyous circumstances.

Everyone goes back to their cars after exchanging last congratulations, photos, hugs, and farewells with the newly-engaged couple. People who’ve had too much drink to safely drive work out how they’ll carpool and get their own parked vehicles back home.

Cécilia’s sisters are already chattering about the upcoming wedding. They all want to be bridesmaids. Simmone wants to be the flower girl. Abélia smiles and tells her daughters they should go celebrate their sister’s engagement. “The night is young, my dears, and so are you. Savor both while they last.”

Noëlle and Simmone are the only ones who don’t enthusiastically climb into Adeline’s and Nolan Moreno’s car. Noëlle still does, after Abélia asks Adeline to “mind your sister, please.” Simmone refuses to leave her mother’s side, which the latter indulges. Her breath steams in the winter air as she strokes the girl’s hair and asks,

“Would you care for a ride home, Caroline? My driver has fortunately had rather less to drink than either of us.”

Despite the Devillers not taking a car to the restaurant, one waits outside to take Abélia and Simmone away. It’s an elongated black Mercedes-Benz s-car, practically a mini-limo, with enough seats for the family of seven.

Caroline: “I’d be grateful, Abélia,” Caroline answers, her own breath giving lie to her dead state. She can simply have ghouls or employees pick up her car later.

GM: “As I will be for your company,” Abélia smiles as her chauffeur opens the door to the extra-long Mercedes. “Do you have someone who can come pick up your car soon? Parking spots are at such a premium here, we wouldn’t want to inconvenience tomorrow’s diners.”

Caroline: The Ventrue nods. “Thinking two steps ahead already?” she asks even as she digs out her phone. “I’ll send someone a text.”

She does so and follows the older woman into the large car.

GM: The black car’s leather and hardwood interior is quite spacious, perhaps little surprise given the size of Abélia’s family. It feels empty, though, with only three people to take up the seven seats. Only a handful of reflections stare back at them from the illuminated vanity mirrors, seat-embedded flat screen TVs, and other stainless steel accouterments. Abélia assumes the first passenger row’s middle seat so that a quiet and already drowsy-looking Simmone can lean against her. The Garden District’s live oaks, flower beds, wrought-iron fences, and rows of Colonial and Victorian houses slowly roll past in the night.

“I’m so happy for your brother and my Cécilia,” Abélia remarks. “They really do make such a splendid match together. I can hardly wait to be a grandmother.”

Caroline: “You must be very proud tonight, Abélia,” Caroline agrees. “Though I imagine they’ll take their time before they give you that particular pleasure.”

GM: “Life is full of surprises, my dear. I’d have thought they were going to wait until they were at least 30 before tying the knot,” she says, stroking her daughter’s hair. “They are so young still, as they say.”

Caroline: “I suppose that’s a matter of perspective,” Caroline observes.

GM: “Yes, perspective. There’s nothing like confronting one’s mortality to make one mindful for the future, is there?”

Caroline: “That’s what I found,” Caroline agrees.

GM: “Last August’s tragedy, and your brother’s even more tragic passing, has put so much into perspective for so many here. Perhaps you won’t be an aunt in too many years after all.”

Simmone starts idly tracing doodles across the car’s cold-condensed windows.

Caroline: “That’s one possibility,” Caroline concedes. “The other take away is that few of us know when our own time is up. Life can be so fleeting.” She gives a slight smile. “I’d like to see that though. Your daughter—well, several of them, really, mean more to me than I’d realized.”

GM: “I am so very gladdened to hear that, Caroline,” the raven-haired woman smiles. “It bodes well for the union between our families. How have they won you over?”

Caroline: “No easy questions tonight?” Caroline replies lightly, pausing for a moment as she gathers her thoughts.

“Vulnerability,” she replies after that moment. “Being able to help some of them was a delight. Openness with me, with their own hopes and dreams and even, in some cases, fears. Of course what Cécilia’s done for my brother. And, I’d be lying of course, if I claimed the growing distance with some of my own f